Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
September 4, 2005

Five calamities, five paths of recovery
The strange and varied roads that coming back from natural disaster can take.

When a disaster strikes, especially one of Hurricane Katrina's magnitude, it is tempting to succumb to despair.

People warily but confidently face a growing storm. And then the worst-case scenario plays out - and it's worse than anyone imagined.

It is hard to fathom the transformation a community endures after such an onslaught. Neighbors and family are dead, washed away without a trace. An entire, iconic city appears destroyed, indefinitely uninhabitable. In the absence of food, water and public order, it can descend into anarchy.

But it is possible to recover, sometimes for the better. In seeking out lessons from other places that have suffered through natural disasters, we asked writers from five Knight Ridder newspapers that have witnessed recent calamities to reflect on their communities' experiences.

In Wilkes-Barre, civic leaders rebuilt the city after Tropical Storm Agnes' floodwaters destroyed much of the downtown in 1972. But the new construction has not cured a faltering economy.

Near San Jose, Calif., the Loma Prieta earthquake decimated the Bay Area in 1989. Despite Silicon Valley's vibrant 1990s economy, the wounds still have not healed.

In Grand Forks, N.D., the city's leadership united to rebuild after flood and fire forced virtually the entire population to evacuate in 1997. And civic leaders say they are better for the experience.

In Miami, although Hurricane Andrew left miles of rubble in 1992, survivors helped their neighbors pull through. Now, however, the largely rebuilt city's sense of common purpose has faded.

Fort Wayne, Ind., rolled up its sleeves after a devastating flood in 1982 and built greater defenses.

Of course, none of these catastrophes compares to Hurricane Katrina. Its damage is far more extensive than that of any other natural disaster in America during our lifetimes. Experts speculate that recovery may take years, even decades. It will be months before residents can return.

One must reach back further in the national consciousness for parallels.

Nearly a century ago, an earthquake struck San Francisco. But, as in New Orleans last week, the initial blow was only a feint: The real destruction occurred in the three days after the quake, when a firestorm, largely triggered by firefighters' misuse of dynamite, destroyed three-quarters of the city. As many as 6,000 people died, and about half the city's 450,000 residents were left homeless.

The acting commander of the Presidio put the city under martial law. The mayor ordered troops to "shoot anyone caught looting," Philip L. Fradkin wrote in his recent history, The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself.

Rebuilding San Francisco took years - and no small measure of graft and corruption, according to Fradkin. Business leaders even sought to expunge the word earthquakefrom public records and newspaper accounts to lull investors about the safety of their city.

Nearly 100 years later, little trace of the destruction remains. The terror San Franciscans suffered is largely forgotten, the event just another piece of city's lore.

--Andrew Maykuth

Tropical Storm Agnes

In June 1972, Tropical Storm Agnes released an unrelenting deluge over the Susquehanna River basin.

The river rose more than 35 feet in downtown Wilkes-Barre, spilling over the sandbagged levee, enveloping homes and businesses.

Though the storm affected states from the Gulf of Mexico to New York, Pennsylvania was hit hardest, with 48 deaths and $2.1 billion in damage. Wilkes-Barre, where six people perished, was devastated.

More than 70,000 residents were evacuated. Fires ravaged entire blocks. Rushing water uprooted 2,000 caskets and scattered body parts along the valley.

When the waters receded several days later, gritty river mud coated the devastation.

At the time, Wilkes-Barre was in economic decline, the area's anthracite mines closed.

U.S. Rep. Dan Flood, a master of appropriations for Northeastern Pennsylvania, pushed through the $220 million Agnes Recovery Act in the weeks after the disaster. Two months later, schools reopened on time, and the federal dollars poured into the city for renewal.

Ornate early-20th-century buildings were replaced by nondescript '70s architecture. But the downtown was alive again.

"The millions and millions [of dollars] that were expended acted as a sort of pacemaker that gave downtown about a decade more of life," said Larry Newman, the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Business and Industry's vice president of economic and community development.

But Wilkes-Barre's new downtown did not revive its economy. The population has declined from 58,000 to fewer than 42,000. Young people are leaving - 20 percent of the population is older than 65, nearly double the national proportion.

Local officials now struggle with a stagnant downtown of vacant storefronts. Wilkes-Barre is going through the sort of urban decay other cities in the region faced a decade ago.

"You know, people were very proud of what happened here," Newman said, but it was "a physical fix. When we crashed, we crashed 10 years later than everybody else."

By Jon Fox , a reporter for the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader.

Grand Forks, 1997

Eight feet of accumulated snow began to melt in spring, and Grand Forks flooded in early April. Then it caught fire. The images of firefighters unsuccessfully battling the blaze while chest-deep in floodwater attracted national attention.

Damage to Grand Forks and neighboring East Grand Forks, Minn., was estimated at $1.5 billion. There was no potable water for 23 days. Approximately 50,000 of the two cities' 60,000 residents were evacuated, 85 percent of homes sustained damage, and 60,000 tons of debris were hauled to the landfill.

Now, local officials say, the cities are better than ever. Government support was the key - and examples are everywhere.

A $393 million dike, 12 feet higher than the one protecting the city in 1997, is nearly complete. Downtown, which lost 11 buildings to fire, has been rebuilt. Much public infrastructure is new; several schools were built at no local cost; new homes on high ground replaced flooded houses near the river.

The low-lying neighborhoods are now a 2,200-acre park.

Both cities' populations have returned to pre-flood levels.

"East Grand Forks is a better community now, thanks to the help we received from government and people around our nation," Mayor Lynn Stauss said.

"We're also better because we pulled together. We were a dying community, but the disaster opened our eyes to it and made us look to the future."

There were rough spots - disputes about the allocation of assistance - but local leaders kept the civic spirit intact.

"It was the defining moment of our community, which became stronger, more vibrant and more diversified than before the flood," Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown said. "It also reminded us of our human spirit of not giving up."

Perhaps the clearest example of the recovery is that conversations about "the Flood" are rare - or they were until this week.

By Ryan Bakken, a columnist and senior writer at the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the 1997 Red River Valley flood. Bakken wrote a book about the flood, "Come Hell and High Water."

Loma Prieta earthquake, 1989

The violent shaking at San Francisco's Candlestick Park began at 5:04 p.m., just before the first pitch in Game Three of the World Series.

When it ended 15 seconds later, the Loma Prieta earthquake had devastated California's Bay Area. It was the largest quake on the San Andreas Fault since the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. The Oct. 17, 1989, disaster killed 62 people, injured 3,757, and caused more than $6 billion in damage.

Hundreds of buildings collapsed in Santa Cruz and nearby Watsonville, wrecking historic downtowns. A section of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, the busiest toll bridge in the United States, collapsed. In Oakland, a double-deck section on the Nimitz Freeway toppled, killing 42 motorists. Homes burned, and water mains failed.

Today nearly all the damage is fixed, but the recovery took far longer than most expected.

"It's exhausting," said Neal Coonerty, whose family business, Bookshop Santa Cruz, was destroyed. He sold books in a huge tent for three years before rebuilding. It took him 14 years to pay off the loans.

"It is such a huge effort to get back to where you were that it's better not to know how much will be required to get through it, and just move ahead," he said.

Today, a rebuilt downtown Santa Cruz is hipper and more vibrant, although three vacant lots remain. The Oakland freeway was never rebuilt, rerouted instead around that city. After years of bickering between the mayors of Oakland and San Francisco, work to construct a new Bay Bridge is under way. The cost has ballooned to $6.3 billion, and the project won't be finished until 2012.

And ahead? The U.S. Geological Survey says there is a 70 percent chance of an earthquake the magnitude of Loma Prieta occurring in the Bay Area in the next 25 years.

By Paul Rogers, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. He was part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that covered the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

The Fort Wayne flood of 1982

A massive melt of nearly six feet of snow triggered the Great Flood of 1982 in Fort Wayne, built at the confluence of three rivers.

In a matter of days, 9,000 of the city's 173,000 residents fled their homes. Property damage exceeded $56 million. But no one died, and the hundreds of volunteers who shored up a wobbly clay dike to prevent worse flooding earned Fort Wayne a reputation as "the city that saved itself."

Amid the disaster, President Ronald Reagan visited and joined the sandbaggers, focusing national attention on northeast Indiana.

New dikes now protect the shores of the St. Joseph and St. Mary's Rivers. The Pemberton Dike near the Maumee River has been reinforced and its height increased by six feet.

Has the investment of more than $50 million paid off? John Roche and his neighbors on Pemberton Drive think so. "It looks pretty safe now," he said during the city's last big flood, in 2003, when no sandbagging was required.

Some residents along the St. Mary's south of town complain that the new earthworks have shifted the risk downstream. "There's no evidence of that," Mayor Graham Richard insisted. "But in a city with three rivers, you always have to be prepared for flooding."

Only a few reminders of the damage remain after 23 years. About 15 homes were demolished. A section of ruined businesses near downtown was bought out and replaced by a 30-acre, $17 million park.

By Kevin Leininger, a columnist for the News-Sentinel in Fort Wayne, Ind. The paper's flood coverage won a Pulitzer Prize.

Hurricane Andrew

The first person at my doorstep after Hurricane Andrew decapitated my house was a red-headed neighbor whose name I could only vaguely remember. She came bearing gifts of food. Thirteen years later, after Hurricane Katrina blew through, my husband chain-sawed two fallen trees that were blocking her front door.

If any good comes from destruction, surely it must be how a community unites in tragedy.

Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm that caused $25.2 billion in damage and was directly or indirectly responsible for 40 South Florida deaths, forced us to make new friends.

We recovered from calamity in fits and spurts, with small yet significant acts of kindness, though the process also brought out the worst in some.

Along the way, of course, we learned invaluable lessons: The county's emergency team has been reorganized, flooding in some cities is under control, and, perhaps more important, the building code has been fortified.

"Dade County has pioneered a strict hurricane-resistant building code," says Herb Saffir, a Coral Gables structural engineer who was one of the creators of the system that rates hurricanes' strength as Categories 1 through 5. "I can't stress enough how important a strong building code is and strong enforcement of that code, too."

Thankfully we've got both. Yet, in many ways, we've also forgotten what required so much pain to learn. Many residents still don't have a hurricane response plan. We continue to build towering high-rises along the beach.

And, to a large extent, we've pushed aside the spirit that helped us rebuild, split viciously at times in ethnic strife.

If only I had bottled that feeling when, bound by a common goal, we tore down invisible walls and surprised each other with generosity.

If only we still had the eau de community that was so fragrantly uplifting, so reminiscent of all the best in us.

      By Ana Veciana-Suarez, a columnist for the Miami Herald, which won a Pulitzer for its coverage of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. home page   
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