The Philadelphia Inquirer
September 4, 2005
calamities, five paths of recovery
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
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
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
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
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.
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
"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
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
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
"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."
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.
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
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
By Kevin Leininger, a columnist for
the News-Sentinel in Fort Wayne, Ind. The paper's flood coverage won a
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
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
By Ana Veciana-Suarez, a
columnist for the Miami Herald, which won a Pulitzer for its coverage of
Hurricane Andrew in 1992.