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Speakers explore resilience of cities post-disaster

Throughout history, hundreds of cities have been permanently lost to natural disaster and war, but in the last 200 years, the trend has been to rebuild, said Professor Lawrence Vale, head of MIT's urban studies and planning department, at a talk in Kirsch Auditorium on Oct. 5.

Vale, co-editor of "The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover From Disaster," was one of three speakers at the second in a series of four symposia addressing "Big Questions After Big Hurricanes."

Vale pointed to several cities that were not expected to come back, including Hiroshima, Japan, which was devastated by an atomic bomb. "Many people thought it was wiped off the map," Vale said.

Warsaw came back after the Nazi destruction; Tangshan, China, came back after an earthquake killed at least 240,000 people in 1976; and San Francisco rebuilt after an earthquake and fires devastated the city in 1906.

"The press at the time said it was an opportunity to build back better and stronger," said Vale. With insurance money and assistance from both national governments and international aid agencies, cities are able to come back stronger than before.

Reactions to and personal narratives about the disaster can make a huge impact on resiliency, said Vale. It remains to be seen whether New Orleans -- partially destroyed by Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29 -- will be able to come back stronger, said Vale.

In New Orleans, there are race and class issues as well as financial ones, Vale said. And whatever happens in New Orleans, it will never be exactly the same. "Cities are resilient and often bounce back in the same place, but often that place is profoundly changed," Vale said.

Professor Thomas Kochan of the Sloan School of Management and the Engineering Systems Division turned to history for lessons in recovery.

After World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt "instinctively understood the need for cooperation and unity in his time of great crisis," Kochan said. FDR's response heralded a joining of business and labor that brought forth important labor reform and workplace practices that are common today, he said.

By comparison, President Bush decided to "go it alone," Kochan said. The most obvious victim of that decision was the airline industry. Already in a slump prior to 9/11, the industry is barely treading water now, he said.

"Clearly cooperation across business, labor, education and community service providers will be needed to address the full dimension of this crisis," said Kochan. "By working together … we will not only restore hope and trust in the American dream for Katrina's victims. We might also learn that there are better ways to work together in the crises and in the normal times that lie ahead."

Because New Orleans is one of the poorest cities in the country, many of Katrina's victims were underprivileged minorities. "There are so many poor and desperate black people in New Orleans," said Professor Phillip Thompson of urban studies and planning, who spoke on the poor community's role in rebuilding the city.

"While Katrina could be an opportunity, it appears to be moving toward re-creating poverty," he said. Without proper heath care and education, the poor community will not be able to recover, he said. Addressing these needs should be at the forefront of the rebuilding effort.

"The poor need government. People need to be protected," he said. "By addressing the needs of the poor (in New Orleans), you can develop a solid blueprint for rebuilding the entire nation."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 19, 2005 (download PDF).

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