Kevin Baker: Can the disasters that befell other cities help save New Orleans?

Roundup: Historians' Take

... A more common threat to American cities [than the flooding that destroyed Galveston in 1900] was that most ancient nemesis of the town, fire. The terrible Chicago fire of 1871 struck a city that was still wood right down to its sidewalks, killing an estimated 300 people, leaving nearly 100,000 more—or one-third of the population—homeless, and consuming three and a half square miles of the city, including 3,650 buildings. San Francisco in 1906 was a much more modern city, already full of elegant steel-framed buildings, but that made little difference once an earthquake of an estimated magnitude of 8 on the Richter scale ripped long rifts in its streets and tore apart both its gas and water mains. More than 50 separate fires sprung up around the city during the next three days, and the quake and the blaze combined to kill 674 people and raze 2,831 acres, including 28,188 buildings.

Many other cities, big and small, suffered losses that were less famous but nearly as traumatic. Portland, Maine, for instance, used to burn down once a century, almost like clockwork—at the hands of the Wabanaki Indians in 1676, the British in 1775, and its own citizens, celebrating the Fourth of July a tad too vigorously, in 1866. In each case the town was an almost total loss. Remarkably insouciant about its combustibility, Portland responded by building a large match factory in 1870. Portland would endure more oscillations of all kinds over the years but finally emerge, thanks to some smart planning, and federal aid, as that rarest of all American cities—a hip, arty cultural center that is also a working town, its port boasting the largest gross tonnage in the country.

This resilience was typical in disaster-stricken cities. Chicago barely paused in its spectacular rise. As Donald Miller writes in his lively history City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America, “more amazing than the destruction was the fire. The rebuilding began while the ground was still warm in the burned district, and within a week after the fire more than five thousand temporary structures had been erected and two hundred permanent buildings were under construction.” By the time the city hosted its famous World’s Columbia Exposition in 1893, “Chicago had the busiest and most modern downtown in the country, with a dozen and more of the highest buildings ever constructed.” This was accomplished mostly by private capital, a large relief fund, and emergency aid from around the country, although once again a key public adjustment was made, in this case stricter building codes.

San Francisco rebuilt almost as quickly even though, as a more modern city, it was faced with removing “countless tons” of stone and brick rubble from its steep hills. This time a more activist President, Teddy Roosevelt, helped coordinate relief efforts, and by 1909, according to William Bronson, author of The Earth Shook, the Sky Burned, “more than half of America’s steel and concrete buildings stood in San Francisco,” and “the assessed valuation of the City was half again as much as it had been before the fire.” By the time San Francisco held its own proud exposition in 1915, it had become once again—as it remains to this day—the most physically beautiful city in America.

Clearly, the lesson to be gleaned from all these very different cities that sustained disaster in very different locations and very different eras is that recovery depends upon determined local effort, combined with planning and/or public funding from one source or another. Each endeavor must complement, not contend with, the other. As long as New Orleans’s citizens are kept away from their city, and no plan is initiated for securing its future, it is difficult to see how it will ever be restored.

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