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Thursday, September 01, 2005

WSJ : Rebuilding After Natural Disasters

The Wall Street Journal recounts rebuilding efforts after major disasters of the past, the 1871 Chicago Fire, the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, the 1889 Johnstown Flood, and the 1900 Galveston Hurricane.  I wish there were more details on the actual economic effects, but the stories do give a clear sense of how resilient the people and the cities were in each of these four cases:

Will New Orleans Rebound?, By Michael M. Phillips and Cynthia Crossen, The Wall Street Journal:  At the close of World War II, American bombers incinerated the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic weapons. Within two decades, both cities had been rebuilt, and their populations had surpassed prewar levels. The lesson, according to economists who have studied the question, is that, while it may take years, cities are resilient and usually bounce back from the worst natural or man-made devastation. "Even nuclear bombs and fire bombing of cities was not enough to change the level and nature of economic activity," says Columbia University economist Donald R. Davis, who studied Japanese reconstruction. "People don't abandon their cities, and indeed industries don't abandon the cities they're in." … disasters are rare … but a look back at four of them in the U.S. … reinforces that conclusion...

1871 Chicago Fire …The fire killed perhaps 300 people, destroyed 18,000 buildings, left 100,000 Chicagoans without homes and caused some $3.2 billion in damages, at today's prices. Half of the city had insurance, but only half of those actually got paid from their policies. … Yet almost as soon as the embers had cooled, Chicago business leaders deployed to New York to persuade investors that this was the time to put more of their money into Chicago, not less. … The stockyards had been spared the flames, as had much of the city's heavy industry. ... Chicago, …was a crucial crossroads of agriculture and industry, too valuable to give up. By the end of the decade Chicago was bigger and better than before. The city had a population of roughly 300,000 before the fire. In 1880 it was home to half a million…

1906 San Francisco Earthquake When the last fire was extinguished after the San Francisco earthquake of April 1906, survivors emerged from their makeshift shelters to find three-quarters of their city in ruins. All telephone and telegraph communications had ceased. There was little water for drinking. The railroads had been destroyed; the port was completely blocked by debris. Few, if any, hotels, restaurants or cafés survived, and 300,000 people were homeless. Banks were closed, and would remain so for a month. Despite martial law, looters roamed the streets, and the mayor ordered them to be shot on sight. "As regards industrial and commercial losses, the conditions are appalling," wrote Victor H. Metcalf, secretary of labor and commerce, in a report to President Roosevelt. "Not only have the business and industrial houses and establishments of one-half million people disappeared, leaving them destitute financially and their means of livelihood temporarily gone, but the complicated system of transportation indispensable to them has been almost totally destroyed."

…In the first days and weeks after the disaster, that meant trying to feed, clothe and shelter survivors while raising money to repair the city's infrastructure. ... Engineers, contractors and draftsmen were recruited from other parts of the country, and the city began trying to buy all the lumber, cement and glass it could find. Temporary structures were erected in several centrally located squares for use by architects, transportation and insurance officials and lawyers. Labor unions quickly … set rules for the coming boom. The painters' union, for example, suspended many of its trade rules: "No overtime will be allowed; straight time for night or Sunday work. The brothers are requested to be satisfied with eight hours' work and give unemployed brothers a chance." … three months later, in July 1906, the St. Francis Hotel Annex re-opened, and hundreds of buildings were under construction…

1889 Johnstown Flood It could be argued that the Johnstown flood of 1889 wasn't a natural disaster at all, but the inevitable consequence of humans thinking they could control nature. Whatever the cause, the day after a dam burst, unleashing 20 million tons of water on the residents of Johnstown, Pa. … Pennsylvania's governor, James Beaver, created the Pennsylvania Relief Committee to coordinate cleanup and restoration, while the state militia kept order. With thousands of men working, the Pennsylvania Railroad rebuilt 20 miles of track in two weeks. One gang of workers … did nothing but sprinkle disinfectants over the entire area. Hundreds of cellars, flooded with "every kind of filth," had to be dug out by hand. But there was no hope the area would survive unless its biggest employer, the Cambria Iron Works, re-opened. On June 9, company officials announced that it would…

1900 Galveston Hurricane During the afternoon of Saturday, Sept. 8, 1900, the town of Galveston, Texas, became part of the ocean floor. … a hurricane … hit Galveston, and ... "Every part of the island was covered in water," says Christy Carl, director of the Galveston County Historical Museum. The row of wooden houses nearest the shore crumpled with the impact of the waves, and the debris slammed into the next block. And the next. And the next, until the detritus itself formed a wall to stop the advancing waters. All told, some 3,600 buildings were destroyed. …Galveston, a prosperous island of cotton merchants, bankers and shippers, boasted a population of 37,500 on Saturday morning. By day's end, as many as 8,000 residents were dead, along with 2,000 or so more on the mainland, making the Galveston hurricane the deadliest natural disaster in the history of the U.S. … town leaders and Army engineers launched an extraordinary effort to insulate the exposed barrier island from the fury of nature. Between 1902 and 1904, the Army Corps of Engineers built a seawall that now stretches more than 10 miles and stands 17 feet high. And in case the seawall didn't deflect the cresting waters, the engineers raised the city. They put each home on the Gulf side of the island up on stilts and pumped wet sand underneath to elevate it. Brick homes couldn't be raised, so the owners had to fill in their basements instead. The island's terrain was graded to slope gradually down toward Galveston Bay. The project took eight years to complete. Another hurricane -- thought to be as strong or stronger than the big storm -- hit the island in 1915, killing about 275 people. It was a disaster, but the seawall and the elevated ground level apparently kept the toll from approaching the grim tally from 1900.

    Posted by on Thursday, September 1, 2005 at 10:44 AM in Economics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (5)

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