As predictions hit the airwaves of a huge blizzard for the Northeast on Friday evening and Saturday morning, scholars who focus their research on the correlates of civic engagement are once again directing attention to the understated links between bad weather and lowered participation in public life.J. Grady Lowman, Associate Professor of Civic Enthusiasm and Community Partnerships at Warren Gamaliel Harding University, recently mused: “Of course, when Robert Putnam wrote in Bowling Alone that television and certain generational trends have the largest long-term impact on the level of civic engagement, he was almost certainly right. But what Putnam neglected to take into account were the short term effects of snowstorms, floods, and hurricanes. When these events and other natural disasters occur, our data clearly indicate that even the most civically engaged individuals retreat from the public sphere.”
The effect is not long lasting, Lowman pointed out, but it is statistically significant and directly proportional to the severity of the natural disaster. Lowman held up a graph that demonstrated clearly that when 15 or more inches of snow fall, the level of civic participation plummets. “Notice here,” Lowman said pointing to the data represented on his graph, “before any high intensity storm, the number of civically engaged individuals tends to hover around 120 per thousand, but as soon as a major storm hits this number is reduced to near zero.” Dr. Lowman went on to say that this impact on civic engagement in particular localities is consistent in virtually every instance of a heavy snowstorm or natural disaster.
When asked if there is anything that can be done to maintain a high level of civic engagement in these instances, Dr. Lowman shook his head and grimaced slightly. “There really isn’t. You just have to wait out the storm, so to speak. We have found that once the snow has been cleared or the damage from a flood has been addressed, civic engagement returns to its former levels. That, of course, is the good news. The bad news is that when the next natural disaster occurs, there is nothing that can be done to forestall diminished civic engagement, at least not until the effects of the event have ended. I am working on a book about this, sort of taking an arrow from Professor Putnam’s quiver. The working title is: Shoveling Alone: The short-term impact of natural disasters on civic engagement.