NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


February 10, 2006

In New York City, where terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, and in New Orleans, where Katrina flooded most of the city, Americans are arguing over how, when and even whether to rebuild. The qualities we associate with recovery from disaster -- urgency, unity, determination, imagination -- have been eclipsed by indecision, delay and dissension, says USA Today.

After past disasters, cities rebuilt, but with little federal aid:

  • After the Chicago Fire destroyed 18,000 buildings and left 100,000 homeless (one in three residents), rebuilding in the "Burnt District" began almost immediately. Debris was pushed into Lake Michigan as landfill for a bigger city. The size of the central business district doubled, and taller buildings were constructed.
  • The San Francisco Earthquake started fires that destroyed about three-quarters of the city and left 300,000 homeless -- half the population. City leaders began rebuilding immediately, abandoning for the sake of speed a master plan to beautify the city.
  • The year after the Galveston Hurricane wrecked much of the island, a county referendum on a bond issue for a seawall passed by better than 9-to-1. The entire city was raised by more than 15 feet.

Rebuilding after natural disasters always has relied on private capital, not federal aid, says USA Today. Although Eastern money was wary of San Francisco after the quake, Western investors stepped up to rebuild the city.

Now, with Washington still prosecuting a war and facing a $400 billion-a-year deficit, economics trumps politics: "No matter what the government does, who's going to invest?" asks George Friedman, president of Stratfor, a private intelligence and analysis service.

Given tight government finances and investor reluctance, New Orleans "just doesn't have the economic muscle to come back as it was," says Mary Comerio, a University of California-Berkeley expert in disaster recovery.

Source: Rick Hampson, "Has USA lost drive to rebuild after tragedies? Nation usually quick to rebound, but confusion slowing process in New Orleans, at Ground Zero," USA Today, February 10, 2006.


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