Disaster History

Disaster History

The history of rebuilding cities after major disasters does not bode well for New Orleans.

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The source: “Rebuilding NOLA” by Witold Rybczynski, in Wharton Real Estate Review, Spring ­2006.

In the log of urban disasters over the past 350 years, the flood that devastated New Orleans in 2005 is neither the most deadly nor the most destructive. The number one catastrophe, judged by loss of both life and property, belongs to a ­man-­made event, the destruction and razing of virtually the entire city of Warsaw by Nazi Germany in 1945. But rebuilding New Orleans poses peculiar challenges not present in Warsaw or any of 19 other major cities hit by disasters since 1666, writes Witold Rybczynski, an urbanism professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a widely published author. Just rebuilding the levees that protect the ­below–­sea-­level city, for example, would cost as much as $30 billion—or about $200,000 for every ­household in New Orleans ­before Hurricane Katrina ­hit.

Reconstructing New Orleans makes festering urban issues of demographics, economics, and ­leadership—­hardly unique to the Big ­Easy—­painfully visible. New Or­leans’s population has been declining since 1965. Its famous port, considered the hub of its economy, is the smallest regional port, vastly over­shadowed by those in South Louis­iana and Baton Rouge. Its slow recovery has been blamed on political inertia and lack of ­leadership.

What will be the extent of “real demand” for rebuilding in the city? Rybczynski asks. How will the city, state, or federal government provide for the poor, given America’s dismal track record in the field? Should rebuilding follow a new ­model—­streets rerouted or areas returned to ­swampland—­or should the old city be reconstructed, house by house? History offers little guidance. Of 20 cities struck by disaster since the 17th century, only two have been substantially changed in rebuilding, Rotterdam and Skopje, Yugoslavia, now Macedonia. Central Rotterdam was almost entirely destroyed by German bombing in World War II. When it was rebuilt, it was reconfigured to incorporate one of the world’s first ­pedestrian-­only shopping districts. Skopje, hit by an earthquake that left 150,000 of its 200,000 people homeless in 1963, was redesigned by a Japanese architect as part of an international ­effort.

Normally, however, rebuilding starts immediately in the existing pattern, in part dictated by landownership, street patterns, and other infrastructure issues. New Orleans’s very modernity makes rebuilding harder. Water, electricity, phone and Internet cables, and other city services need to be in place before residents can return. The list of essential services is surprisingly long, Rybczynski writes. Somebody must restore them, but there is little housing for such workers. Authority is divided, plans are ­contested.

Judging by the experience of other cities, he writes, it is likely that New Orleans will be as much as 50 percent less populous than before the flood, that rebuilding will require a major federal effort on the scale of the ­Depression-­era Tennessee Valley Authority, and that the entire proc­ess will take 10 ­years.

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