Bringing a city back from the brink

Emile Turner and Michael Foster play live music on Bourbon Street in New Orleans
Don't expect New Orleans of the future to grow from the flooded remains it lies in today. It's rare, experts say, that an urban area is upgraded from what was there before.Brian Snyder / Reuters
/ Source: Forbes

Disaster strikes. An earthquake rocks San Francisco or Kobe, Japan. Hurricane Andrew slams into Florida, ripping Homestead to shreds. Or, most recently, the levees fail in New Orleans, drowning the city in 20 feet of water.

Following the evacuations, the rescues and the funerals, the engineers appear and the long, slow process of breathing life back into a city begins.

But how? How do you bring a city back from the dead?

While the locales and the disasters may differ, experts say the process is the same the world over because the infrastructure underlying cities is universal. What can make things more difficult is the age of a city — a Boston, or a New Orleans, has much older systems in many places than, say, Orlando.

The problem in New Orleans is that engineers will not just be going back in to fix what was already there. Much of it will need to be replaced.

But don't expect the city of the future to grow from the flooded remains of the Crescent City. It's rare, experts say, that an urban area is upgraded from what was there before. The rush to get systems jump-started, and the cost associated with the project tend to keep this from happening.

"Historically, cities tend to rebuild with only modest infrastructural improvements," says Lawrence J. Vale, a professor in the Department of Urban Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-editor of “The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster.”

The first step in bringing a city back on line is to clear out the remains of the disaster. In the case of New Orleans, this includes standing water and the wreckage that lies beneath it — a process that could take several months to complete.

Once that's done, there are five general components to rebuilding, according to Aseem Inam, an urban planning professor at the University of Michigan and author of “Planning for the Unplanned: Recovering from Crises in Megacities.” Anyone trying to give a city CPR must address its electricity, roads, sewage, water and housing.

Fred Krimgold, director of the Virginia Tech Center for Disaster Risk Management, adds a sixth element: communications. Without communications infrastructure, for instance phone lines, cellular towers and so on, it's almost impossible to coordinate rebuilding. "Rescue workers have come to depend on technology like everybody else," he says.

The short-term phase is about attacking each of these areas. But this is no easy task — nor is it a rapid one. Each component involves different players, from individuals to local companies to federal agencies. Simply coordinating these relief efforts is not an easy undertaking.

Regional companies such as Bell South and Entergy, the local utility, will be involved. Also, expect multinational construction giants such as Bectel and Halliburton to play a part.

Once the roads are passable, the electricity is restored and the water is flowing, the next phase begins.

The long-term process is more complex, not to mention time consuming. Both the tasks and the time frame depend on the condition of the city — its physical and economic health--prior to the disaster. "It's the sort of measure of its resilience," explains Inam. "And New Orleans was not exactly an economically thriving city before the hurricane, so it's going to take a very long time." His guess: several decades.

No surprise, rebuilding won't come cheap either. Though estimates account for the entire Gulf region, figures in excess of $100 billion seem accurate to Inam — on par with the world's most expensive natural disaster, the earthquake that hit Kobe, Japan, in January 1995, which caused $200 billion in damage.

The cost and severity aside, it's important to keep residents both informed and involved in the rebuilding process, says MIT's Vale.

While communication doesn't guarantee success, the investment in social infrastructure will help rebuild a community, rather than just a city.

“In many ways,” says Vale, “it's a lot easier to cope with the engineering challenges of rebuilding a city than it is with the social ones.”