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William R. Morrish After the Storm: Rebuilding Cities upon Reflexive Infrastructure Disasters don’t just destroy lives; they m ock them. —Susan Neiman (2005) IN THE LAST TWENTY YEARS, I HAVE TAKEN PART IN RECOVERY AND rebuilding efforts following thel993 Mississippi River floods, the 9/11 World Trade Center attack, and Hurricane Katrina and the levee collapse in New Orleans. W alking into the pit at Ground Zero or through the flood-ravaged neighborhoods of New Orleans, I have felt the heavy tru th of Susan N eim an’s words and seen it etched in residents’ faces and scarred oak trees. I have witnessed the eerie silence as people, birds, and all other signs of life disappeared in the darkness as the city struggled w ithout power, water, or the security of streetlights. I now see these places as historic classrooms, their ashes and m uddied family album s are pow erful testam ents to the value and vulnerabilities of every city in America. A disaster’s swift currents not only alter the familiar topological contours of the distressed com m u­ nity; they also reveal m ajor gaps in civic practices and social justice, surprising changes in local culture and ecologies, and a swarm of unset­ tling questions about the viability of the entire civil infrastructure network. W hen a tsunam i, hurricane, or m ajor earthquake strikes a city and m etropolitan landscape, the winds, storm surges, and trem ors im m ediately strip away th e veneer of everyday life, uncovering the hidden fragility of local life-support systems such as w ater supply, social research Vol 75 : No 3 : Fall 2008 993 waste disposal, flood control, telecommunications, public health, and personal mobility—to nam e just a few. System weaknesses usually are m atters of public record long before disaster strikes, but the decision to tackle the tough political and financial issues that come w ith each upgrade is routinely deferred “to another day” for the sake of budget deficits and political expediency. In the grim afterm ath of the storm, responders discover that the day of reckoning has arrived. On top of the chaos and hardship of disaster recovery, the city now faces multiple system failures intensified by prior neglect. Urgent rebuilding demands have to com pete w ith long-overdue infrastructure reconstruction. Meanwhile, besieged residents cope w ith added risks such as cholera and other water-borne diseases, which seem unimaginable in modernday America. In th eir book, The Resilient City, How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster, the editors Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella summa­ rize the publication’s urban case studies w ith a concluding chapter: “Axioms of Resilience.” They list 12 activities th at cycle through an evolving process of recovery, reconstruction, and rebuilding. As the disaster recovery chart found in their volume illustrates, it is a lengthy process requiring great focus and endurance for any city to successfully navigate. The chart provides an im portant visual fram ework that helps describe w hat happened to New Orleans in the wake o f Katrina. On August 29, 2005, the annual Gulf hurricane event turned into a massive urban disaster and hum an tragedy. Hurricane Katrina’s Category 3 winds and subsequent tidal surge overwhelmed the region’s patchwork of protective levees. In two days, 80 percent of the city was under water. Floodwater crushed w ater and sewer lines and inundated pump, fire, police, and public health stations. Oil and toxic chemicals, m ixed w ith fecal m aterial, turned the w ater into a dangerous brew th at seeped into building walls and lingered in the yards of homes. Meanwhile, 75 percent of the city’s celebrated oak and magnolia tree canopy, which protected residents from sum m er heat and eased stormw ater runoff for over a century, was wiped out by wind and saltwater intrusion. Most of the region’s hospitals and em erging biotechnology 994 social research centers were isolated by floodwater. Lacking access to power or dry cooling air, heat and hum idity generated m old and bacterial growth throughout the buildings. Today, m ost rem ain empty, uninhabitable, requiring com plete dem olition...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 993-1014
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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