- Historic Sites
The Future Of New Orleans
Can the disasters that befell other cities help save this one?
April/May 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 2
This grand public-works project succeeded. The seawall withstood another ferocious hurricane in 1915. Galveston’s population and prosperity increased, and it remained Texas’s leading port into the 1920s. Its relative decline in later years was due not to any lack of will on behalf of its people but to the fact that, as Mason writes, “a narrow island has only so much space for expansion.” When Houston was finally able to dredge out a deep ship channel to the sea, Galveston could not match its larger, inland neighbor—but then, it was never going to be able to do so indefinitely.
A more common threat to American cities 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
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
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.