Monica Gumm/laif/Redux

The Phoenix Playbook

Building Back From a Disaster

edward tenner, a frequent contributor to the Review, is a research affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and Rutgers University.

Published June 29, 2022


Sarajevo, New Orleans, Port-au-Prince, Aleppo, Fukushima, Beirut, Mariupol … too many places become synonyms for desolation. Yet catastrophes, natural and unnatural, can also evoke an optimism of new beginnings.

Actually, the theme of renewal is as old as ancient Greece. The historian Herodotus relates that after the Persians destroyed the Parthenon and its sacred olive tree — a gift from Athena herself — in 480 BC, a surviving sprout symbolized the rebirth of Athens in what became the city-state’s golden age. More recently, science fiction writers have appealed to the dreams of rebuilding shattered civilizations as technological utopias (H.G. Wells’ Things to Come) and disabled bodies as superhuman paladins (Paul Verhoeven’s film Robocop).

The reality of reconstruction is rarely so inspiring, though. It demands a series of hard tradeoffs and usually leaves winners and losers. And unsurprisingly, despite the growing need for reconstruction, the process has rarely been studied across disciplines. If Reconstruction Studies is ever funded, I would define it as a series of questions. 

Who Is to Control Rebuilding?

In the United States, “reconstruction” originally referred to military and political initiatives rather than economic. The Reconstruction Acts of 1867 aimed to secure the suffrage for liberated Black slaves by establishing military districts to oversee new constitutions and elections in Confederate states, along with their subsequent readmission to the Union.

Every post-conflict military occupation is a form of political rebuilding before repair of the economy can begin. And all too often, America as an occupying nation has found it difficult to manage either political or economic reconstruction without the help of local elites — be they former Southern slaveholders, German and Japanese industrialists after World War II.

Disasters can catalyze reform, too, as the historian David Welky has suggested in The Thousand Year Flood: The Ohio-Mississippi Disaster of 1937. What matters is less the extent of damage than the vigor of political culture. Cairo, Illinois, the struggling town at the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers satirized by Charles Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit, escaped inundation, while the far larger Ohio River town of Louisville, Kentucky suffered catastrophic inundation. Yet Cairo, divided against itself by racial hatred, never recovered — and has continued to decline demographically and economically. Its center is now a virtual ghost town.

By contrast, Louisville’s pragmatic elite wheedled $375 million in relief from the Federal government, directing building and crucial utilities away from the waterfront and establishing a model flood control system. The riverfront, at first abandoned, has since been redeveloped for tourism.

While we think of resilience after disasters as an opportunity for a progressive social realignment, bouncing back from disaster has appeal across the ideological spectrum. Case in point: the environmental historian Anthony N. Penna and the earth scientist Jennifer S. Rivers argued that, in the decade before Japan’s Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the nation had been moving toward a more open and egalitarian society. But the quake created a political as well as socioeconomic discontinuity.

The earthquake and the fires it triggered were the greatest calamity in Japan’s history. Nearly half the housing in Tokyo and 90 percent in Yokohama was destroyed, and as many as 140,000 perished. And here’s the rub: only the military could organize relief and rebuilding on such a scale, using martial law and mass mobilization under patriotic slogans that recalled the nation’s sacrifice and victory in the Russo-Japanese War. The right-wing military leadership exploited these sentiments to launch a sustained attack against democracy and Western influence, and in support of imperial power.

There are crucial alternatives to consider in rebuilding. Is the goal to restore the order devasted by nature or human violence? Or is it to replace it with a better order?
What Places Get Rebuilt?

Some disaster sites, no matter how severely devastated, are so vital to domestic and international transportation and trade that their rapid reconstruction is assured. Think of London after the Great Fire of 1666 and Chicago after its own conflagration in 1871. Or the European cities — Rotterdam, Hamburg, Antwerp, Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt — nearly leveled in World War II that were vital railroad and shipping nodes before the war. 

This is an ancient phenomenon; geographers and archaeologists call it “persistence of habitation.” Other places of course, have proved dispensable. Mining towns, usually located far from main transportation arteries, tend to become ghost towns after extensive fire damage.

What Is the Goal? 

There are crucial alternatives to consider in rebuilding. Is the goal to restore the order devasted by nature or human violence? Or is it to replace it with a better order? 

After the Great Fire of London that destroyed most of the medieval city, the easy part was requiring all new construction to be of stone or brick. But what of the roads and lanes? Some of the most celebrated English intellectuals presented plans for razing the chaotic old street pattern and substituting a more rational one — some would have emulated Continental urbanism with its radial vistas, while others proposed a sober grid of blocks centered on churches, and one even included a canal to generate tolls to support rebuilding.

Christopher Wren, now renowned for St. Paul’s Cathedral and other rebuilt churches, was one of the diagonal enthusiasts, but his plan and others of the ilk proved too costly and complex to be implemented. The persistence of London’s medieval street labyrinth 350 years later makes it necessary for aspiring London cab drivers to spend years studying for examinations on their proficiency in planning journeys through the maze. (Is the formidable qualifying examination — “the knowledge” — a shield for entrenched drivers or an enlightened consumer safeguard against confused addresses and roundabout journeys? I’d say it is both.)

A more radical solution was implemented in the ancient Sicilian town of Noto (see photo), leveled thoroughly by an earthquake in 1693 followed by looting, famine, epidemics and aftershocks. A magnificent new Baroque town went up a decade later on an adjacent hillside — today a UNESCO World Heritage site. If flooding of coastal communities continues to escalate because of climate change, the relocation option may no longer seem so radical.

The nuclear option in reconstruction is razing the old street plan and rebuilding a city not only on a master geometric pattern, but with strict specifications for the height and design of buildings. This was the strategy of the Portuguese statesman Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, Marquis of Pombal, who dictated the plan for rebuilding Lisbon as a showpiece of rationalist planning — explicitly rejecting medieval notions of disasters as collective punishment for sin. (Hey, you never can tell: The earthquake destroyed nearly every church in the city, yet spared the red-light district.)

For Whom Is a Place Rebuilt?

The recovery of New York City from a monstrous fire in 1835 that wiped out most of the business district proved a blessing in disguise for property owners, allowing rebuilding on a far grander scale. “Gone were the small store and businesses replaced by gleaming Greek Revival buildings, housing, banks, and insurance companies,” each “a temple to commerce and trade,” wrote urban historian Daniel S. Levy in Manhattan Phoenix: The Great Fire of 1835 and the Emergence of Modern New York.

The biggest winner of all was the immigrant German butcher’s son John Jacob Astor. He accelerated his move of capital from the fur trade to New York City real estate, building an eponymous hotel — the predecessor of the 20th-century Waldorf-Astoria — on the site of his former home. 

Where there is no such entrepreneurial interest, infusions of recovery assistance can backfire badly. American military victories against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan were squandered when billions in aid ended up in the pockets of warlords .

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Reconstruction calls out for study combining the perspectives of economics, public health, environmental science, political science, history, geography and architecture. But perhaps the most urgent need is finding better ways to help survivors help themselves. The crucial lesson going forward is assuring that funds will go to those who are on the front lines of rebuilding. Add forensic accounting to the list of disciplines.

main topic: Economics Profession