Rebuilding Urban Places After Disaster: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina

Rebuilding Urban Places After Disaster: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina

by Eugenie L. Birch

View All Available Formats & Editions

Disasters—natural ones, such as hurricanes, floods, or earthquakes, and unnatural ones such as terrorist attacks—are part of the American experience in the twenty-first century. The challenges of preparing for these events, withstanding their impact, and rebuilding communities afterward require strategic responses from different levels of government in


Disasters—natural ones, such as hurricanes, floods, or earthquakes, and unnatural ones such as terrorist attacks—are part of the American experience in the twenty-first century. The challenges of preparing for these events, withstanding their impact, and rebuilding communities afterward require strategic responses from different levels of government in partnership with the private sector and in accordance with the public will.

Disasters have a disproportionate effect on urban places. Dense by definition, cities and their environs suffer great damage to their complex, interdependent social, environmental, and economic systems. Social and medical services collapse. Long-standing problems in educational access and quality become especially acute. Local economies cease to function. Cultural resources disappear. The plight of New Orleans and several smaller Gulf Coast cities exemplifies this phenomenon.

This volume examines the rebuilding of cities and their environs after a disaster and focuses on four major issues: making cities less vulnerable to disaster, reestablishing economic viability, responding to the permanent needs of the displaced, and recreating a sense of place. Success in these areas requires that priorities be set cooperatively, and this goal poses significant challenges for rebuilding efforts in a democratic, market-based society. Who sets priorities and how? Can participatory decision-making be organized under conditions requiring focused, strategic choices? How do issues of race and class intersect with these priorities? Should the purpose of rebuilding be restoration or reformation? Contributors address these and other questions related to environmental conditions, economic imperatives, social welfare concerns, and issues of planning and design in light of the lessons to be drawn from Hurricane Katrina.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Invaluable. . . . Essential."—Choice

"This book reveals fresh and insightful approaches to the challenges of facing natural disaster. Contributions from the fields of regionalism and environmental planning are positive and prospective, offering new ways to understand how the places we call home are interconnected with each other and with the land. I'm particularly struck by the thoughtful writings about the individuality of these places, where cultural expressions in music and architecture are irrepressible, even amidst debris and discouragement."—Marilyn Jordan Taylor, Partner, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP and Chairman, Urban Land Institute

"After reading Rebuilding Urban Places one comes away with an understanding of how complex a process it is to restore our urban communities after experiencing such a catastrophe . . . and an understanding of the leaps this country must take to help and protect our citizens."—John Timoney, Chief of Police, Miami

"No elected official or planning professional should miss this book. Birch and Wachter have collected essays spanning every dimension of rebuilding. From historical lessons to cutting-edge practices, there is so much to learn."—Brent Warr, Mayor, City of Gulfport, Mississippi

"A remarkable collection of essays."—Journal of the American Planning Association

Product Details

University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
Publication date:
City in the Twenty-First Century
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
File size:
21 MB
This product may take a few minutes to download.

Read an Excerpt

"The Wound"
Amy Gutmann

Hurricane Katrina was a wound.

"Wound" is a better word than "disaster," which connotes a purely natural occurrence. "Wound" makes room for human agency. And when a wound is inflicted by human beings, so too, are women and men left with the task of its healing—or, to borrow Abraham Lincoln's phrase, "to bind up our nation's wounds."

Hurricane Katrina was most obviously inflicted by nature, not by man. But was it solely a random, natural misfortune? Or were its effects also the product of human injustice? The Lisbon earthquake of 1755, as Judith Shklar has pointed out, was the first natural disaster after which such questions rose to the fore. At 9:20 a.m. on the morning of November 1st, 1755, an earthquake, now believed to have equaled 9.0 on the Richter scale, struck the Portuguese capital. A devastating tsunami and fire followed. Some 90,000 people—a third of the city's population—are estimated to have perished. Eighty-five percent of Lisbon's buildings were destroyed. The catastrophe prompted intense debate and speculation in religious and intellectual circles across Europe. Was it a random act of nature? Was it a divine punishment? Or was the failure to plan for foreseeable tragedy a human crime?

"We shall find it difficult to discover," Voltaire famously declared, "how could the laws of movement operate in such fearful disasters in the best of all possible worlds." Surely, this could not be the work of a just, even if incomprehensible, God, Voltaire argued, but merely a random misfortune of impersonal nature. But it was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who recognized that if nature made the wound, it was human beings themselves who had held the knife. If the population had not been concentrated in such a small area and if the homes had not been built so many stories tall, the toll in physical and human loss would have been much less. The Lisbon disaster challenged both Catholic theology and Enlightenment rationalism, and in part through the early writings of Immanuel Kant, it spurred the earliest beginnings of a truly scientific seismology.

Now, in the twenty-first century, there is no doubt that Hurricane Katrina was not just a misfortune, but also an injustice. It was not purely a natural disaster, though it may appear so on its face. What if human beings had done the right thing in advance of Katrina? How dramatically different the outcome, and its aftermath, would have been! Of course, we mortals never completely do the right thing. But rarely have we so completely done the wrong thing.

All too often, we do the wrong thing because we ignore facts; we ignore knowledge that we actually have. The tragedy—more accurately, the injustice—of Katrina and similar wounds follows directly from the fact that we know things that could have made a difference. We know a great many things about urban spaces. We know much about environmental threats; about civil engineering; about city planning, about regional economic development and the management of risk; about Geographic Information Systems; about economic disparity, community formation, and racial inequality; about governmental and bureaucratic inefficiency—and how to make them more efficient; about supporting and restoring displaced populations; and about ameliorating the traumas of catastrophes.

None of this knowledge, even taken alone, is easy to acquire, master, or apply. But more difficult still is putting such disparate knowledge together into an integrated and comprehensive understanding of such a multifaceted event. Integrating our knowledge to comprehend how the many aspects of the problem work together is the challenge that complex problems like Katrina present. Fortunately, there is a base of empirical knowledge, theoretical understanding, and practical professional experience on which we can draw. So while knowledge is always a great challenge, it is not really our greatest challenge. Our greatest challenge, which we learned the hard way in Katrina, is the integration and dissemination of that knowledge—and, most important, our willingness to engage it and to use it.

H. G. Wells put this well in his 1920 book The Outline of History. "Human history," he wrote, "becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe." The mission of education is to race as successfully as we can against catastrophe. The catastrophe catches up with us when education lags behind. "Education," here, means not only what we do in universities, which is extremely important. We also need to attend to the education of civic and political leaders, of legislators, of journalists, and of ordinary citizens in advance of, and in the wake of, catastrophes. Such civic education is equally important, and it is not primarily learned in the classroom. It is rather the kind of learning that can occur only in some kind of "meeting"—some kind of "convocation"—whether it is a meeting of the state legislature, the city council, the neighborhood association, the editorial board of a newspaper, the live conversations with "experts" on CNN and MSNBC, or the kind of conference that brings together scholars, professional practitioners, political leaders, and ordinary citizens, as did the conference on which this volume is based.

Only through this kind of mutual education can we learn from and with each other, integrate what we have learned from multiple sources, and communicate our collective knowledge and understanding so as to make our learning truly useful. Albert Einstein made a similar point, half a century ago, when he noted that "the unleashed power of the atom has changed everything—save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophes." The major change in our modes of thinking that is needed today is learning from and with each other—and communicating that knowledge effectively—so no one at risk is ignored. We need the kind of learning that happens when people come together—despite all their differences of background, class, race, education, and circumstance—to deliberate about their common future. And we need that kind of deliberative learning, because otherwise many people are ignored. Before Katrina struck, we had the needed knowledge to avert catastrophe. What we lacked—out of neglect rather than incapacity—were the convocations, the meetings, the communications, the effective sharing of what we know that would have enabled us to put our knowledge into practice in anticipation of the event, instead of—if we are—only after the fact.

Katrina exemplifies the problem that knowledge in isolation creates-just as does a politics that is only about power and not about putting knowledge into power. To rectify this problem, we must, very self-consciously, deliberate together—deliberation not for its own sake, but for the sake of making better decisions, decisions reflective of broader understanding and respect for the lives and well-being of all the people affected. Such self-conscious and inclusive deliberation is essential if we are to confront successfully the causes of catastrophes that are not simply natural, but which, in whole or in part, have a human cause-a human cause often not because of what human beings do, but because of what they fail to do.

Deliberation is not always pretty or easy. In fact, effective deliberation has a good deal of controversy built into it and can be really tough. But deliberation is always important as a means to more respectful and responsible decision-making. Deliberation is all the more valuable in this regard when the human consequences are so enormous and likely to shape our cities and regions for decades to come.

There is no true deliberation without decision and no decision without something practical to deliberate about. Otherwise there is just (often seemingly endless) discussion. Discussion is fine—we do it all the time. But true deliberation has an end in clear sight. Deliberation is part and parcel of decision-making at its best. Hurricane Katrina has left many difficult decisions in its wake, which call for deliberation: For whom are we rebuilding? How do we provide for the needs of all the people who were displaced by this catastrophe? How do we restore? Can we restore? To what extent do we need to create anew?

Rebuilding, surely, is not doing everything the same, recreating the old New Orleans and Gulf Coast. There is no going back to what existed before Katrina. So, how do we restore or create anew a sense of community, culture, and home, where far too little now exists? Some people will determine whether and how to revitalize the unique arts and culture of New Orleans. Who should those decision-makers be? Analysts often turn to cost-benefit analysis to help them make complex decisions that measure trade-offs, between quality of life, risks to life, and public and private costs of benefits. Is cost-benefit analysis adequate to this task? What civic principles and moral values can we agree upon to frame and push any such analysis forward?

These are some of the major questions posed by the hard tasks that confront our nation, now that the wound has been inflicted. Our society will certainly confront questions like these again and again in the future. We now have an opportunity to make a better future out of what has been one of the worst disasters and injustices of our time. This work that we have to do together, as a society, is only barely begun-not only the work of rebuilding, but also the work of collective deliberation. The present volume is intended both to reflect and advance that deliberation and to further our understanding of the difficult choices that we collectively will have to make.

As these essays demonstrate, the tasks of rebuilding are ones for which we as a society possess expert knowledge and wide-ranging experience. The tasks of rebuilding—a city, a culture, a region, even a nation—have been accomplished many times in human history, both recent and distant. Lisbon is a good example: after the earthquake, the army was quickly mobilized to prevent chaos, looting, and mass flight. Corpses were gathered and buried at sea to prevent disease. Within a year, the city was cleaned of debris and well along in its rebuilding. The government envisioned and planned a dramatically beautiful new city, with broad thoroughfares and avenues that are still evident today. Along these thoroughfares, the first structures ever built specifically to resist seismic events were designed, tested, and constructed. Massive reconstruction-now required for rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in some yet to be determined fashion—has been accomplished repeatedly in human history, in the wake of devastating wars, natural disasters, plagues, and social, political and economic crises.

We in the nation's universities have much to contribute to this rebuilding. This is a practical task, but it is also a moral one. It is part of the educational, practical, and moral mission of our institutions. In this spirit, Hurricane Katrina brought forth a dramatic demonstration of the University of Pennsylvania at its very best: inclusive, engaged, deliberative, and practical. Penn went into action to offer space to displaced college students, to provide medical and technical assistance, and in the months since, to bring together experts and participants at both the theoretical and practical levels to grapple with the extremely difficult challenges Katrina left to us in its wake.

On February 3, 2006, Penn convened the second of two national conferences to examine the challenge of "Rebuilding Urban Places after Disaster" and draw lessons for the present and the future from our experience to date with the aftermath of Katrina. The second conference, under the leadership of Professors Eugenie L. Birch and Susan Wachter, codirectors of the Penn Institute for Urban Research, focused on the specific dilemmas and challenges of rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. The essays in this volume reflect and build on the deliberations of the conference participants. The first conference, "On Risk and Disaster," convened in Washington, D.C., in early December 2005 under the leadership of Provost Ron Daniels. It focused on the problems of risk assessment and the roles of government and the private sector in preparing for catastrophes and resulted in the book On Risk and Disaster, Lessons from Hurricane Katrina. These books and conferences exemplify how, in responding to challenges such as Katrina, universities model the kind of deliberation that is necessary to cope with the most challenging and complex problems of our time.

From such an integrated and comprehensive perspective, the challenge of rebuilding after Katrina is far from unique, even in a strictly American context. The magnified impact of television and 24/7 cable news networks makes catastrophic events that seemed once very distant—like the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the Galveston flood of 1900, and the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906—seem immediately earth-shattering, close at hand, and terrifying. The vivid impact can be so immediate and so terrifying as to distract us from the less immediately striking moral challenges of what we could have done and can do to make a difference.

Many thoughtful people have been unsettled by the rapid fading of post-Katrina issues of rebuilding from our daily digest of news, conversation, and entertainment. But this is not surprising. The immediacy of the news, that which gives it such a great impact on human emotion, is not the thoughtful analysis of what can be done or should have been done. It is rather the bombardment of the terrifying. Once that terrifying immediacy is gone, the hard questions about something that is so obviously important to our nation's future fade from our news, our conversations, our consciousness—even (save a sentence) from the President's State of the Union Address. Yet the lack of a sense of immediacy at several months remove from the event does absolutely nothing to diminish the scope and scale of the work we can and should, indeed must, do together.

Of course, every disaster is different—but the strategic and the moral mindset that envisions the possibility of future disasters, that prepares for them regardless of what form they may take, that responds to them comprehensively and promptly, and that understands what can be done in their wake is more critical to us today than ever before in human history. It is also more available to us today than ever before. We have the tools, if only we can figure out how to use them together. And what holds true today, in the wake of Katrina, holds true for every other important public policy question concerning our society in our time. In this case, as in all the others, we must—practically and morally must—deliberate together and decide how best to move ahead.

Effective and inclusive deliberation can help answer some of the questions left to us in Katrina's wake. It also can help heal some of the physical wounds Katrina has inflicted, by leading us to fair and effective reconstruction policies. And it can help heal—if we do it right or if we do it at least a lot better than we have done it in the past—the too long festering wounds of racial, ethnic, and economic disparity, by creating a new and deeper sense of shared community and common purpose. Collective deliberation can do that. Morally, we must try to do that.

There are so many comparisons that can be made, and are made day in and day out, by some of the people who were most wounded by Katrina. We have spent over $200 billion in Iraq, and by most estimates, we will spend over a trillion dollars before we leave Iraq. Whether one favors or rejects withdrawal from Iraq, we are still forced by circumstances to ask: "How much are we willing to spend here at home in the wake of a catastrophe where the certainty of our being able to help is much greater?" This is not a hypothetical, but rather a real and inescapable, indeed urgent, comparison. How do we look our fellow citizens in the eye who have been displaced by this catastrophe and say, "we are just not willing to spend as much on you"? We obviously cannot look them in the eye and say that. Will our nation's words belie or be true to our deeds?

Clearly, we have much work to do together. The discussions that follow are intended to contribute to that work. They engage with the compelling public priorities and perspectives that characterize the rebuilding after any major disaster. They are intended to model and stimulate the kind of engaged public conversations that are sorely needed if we are to come to terms with the inevitable conflicts over reconstruction priorities and preparations for future disasters. In this spirit, then, we must collectively deliberate in order to help bind up our nation's wound in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Meet the Author

Eugenie L. Birch is Professor and Chair of the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. Susan Wachter is Richard B. Worley Professor of Financial Management and Professor of Real Estate and Finance at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Together, they direct the Penn Institute for Urban Research.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >