Home Again

Some of our most historic cities have endured natural disasters—and come back.

By Dwight Young

Order a copy of Dwight Young's book of Back Page essays

When I was in Galveston, Tex., recently, I was reminded of how much the city has in common with San Francisco.

It isn't topography that links them, since Galveston's flatness could hardly be more unlike San Francisco's roller-coaster hills and valleys. Nor do they share much in the way of historical origins or architecture or climate or politics. Each has its own strong sense of place, but they're about as different from each other as they are from most other cities—in every way but one: They share a century-old memory of catastrophe.

Both cities were practically obliterated—Galveston by wind and water in 1900, San Francisco by earthquake and fire in 1906. They are members of a (blessedly) small group of places visited by epic calamity, locations whose tribulations are recognized as exclamation points in the American saga. The 1871 Chicago Fire has achieved such near-mythical prominence that we capitalize its very name. More recently, several other cities have endured their own apocalypses: In 1989 alone, for example, Charleston, S.C., was blasted by Hurricane Hugo, and Santa Cruz, Calif., had much of its downtown flattened by the Loma Prieta earthquake.

Now here's the good news: These places bounced back. Today, Chicago and San Francisco stand among the world's great cities, admired not only for their beauty and culture but also for the vigor with which they rebuilt. To ensure that their island would never again be inundated, Galveston's city fathers built a massive seawall and literally raised the entire city—buildings, streets, everything—by as much as 17 feet. In Santa Cruz, long-warring business and political factions put aside their differences to reconstruct their shattered business district; after years of work and plenty of struggle, downtown Santa Cruz now buzzes with activity night and day. And in Charleston, officials insisted that rebuilding respect the city's historic architecture—and as a result, many people are of the opinion that Charleston looks better today than it did before Hugo blew through.

Which brings us to the most recent addition to the roster of misery: New Orleans. It would be comforting to assume that the recovery enjoyed by other ravaged cities is bound to happen in New Orleans, but the analogies don't hold true all the way down the line. In Galveston and San Francisco, disaster struck growing and prosperous cities, whereas New Orleans had been experiencing population and economic decline for years before Katrina. What's more, in other cities, the disaster was of relatively brief duration: The earth shook, the winds and waves and flames roared—and then it was over, and people could start picking up the pieces. But in New Orleans, the water came and stayed; houses soaked for many days in a nasty marinade while residents fled to, and often made new lives in, other parts of the country.

This means recovery in New Orleans is going to be tougher than in other places. But I believe—partly because I refuse to believe otherwise—that it will come back. I'm reassured by what Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley said after Katrina: "Cities recover. That's what they do. That's the history of the world. The human spirit responds. People build and rebuild. People pick up and get back to work."

It's already happening on the Gulf Coast. Recovery is spotty and fitful, and is sure to drag on for years—but at least it's under way, and that's good news in a place that hasn't had much of that commodity since Aug. 29. New Orleans is wounded, but it isn't dead.

On Apr. 18, San Franciscans will commemorate the centennial of the disaster that reduced their city to ruin. Someday, many hard months from now, New Orleanians will mark a similar anniversary. They'll look around at shops and restaurants that are busy again, they'll walk through neighborhoods filled with life instead of silence, and they'll feel good about the courage with which they pulled their waterlogged, wonderful city out of the mud.