Natural Disasters, Sustainable Redevelopment

I didn’t know anyone who lived in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit, but just before she and the flood that followed laid waste to large portions of the city, I'd purchased an issue of the now defunct Cottage Living Magazine. I read about a couple that had refurbished their adorable, little shotgun-style cottage in the Ninth Ward, bringing it back from its crack house days. Having just done a major renovation on my Denver bungalow (bringing it back from its own crack house days), I felt a kinship with that couple. When Katrina and then Rita hit, I went to the magazine’s online forum to inquire about the couple and their house. The house had survived Katrina with minimal damage, but with Rita, they weren’t so lucky.

I wondered about that couple and whether they would (once again) rebuild their adorable little house. It’s hard to imagine how it all must have felt, especially knowing how much effort they put into their first rebuilding. Unfortunately it’s an effort many across this country are making and will continue to make as we face natural disasters like tornadoes, floods and hurricanes, which, more and more, seem to be occurring at record-setting, historic levels.

It can be overwhelming to see photos of destruction from natural disasters, especially when towns and cities get wiped out. Often however, destruction has been seen as opportunity.

Kevin Rosario, in his Wall St. Journal article, traces the impacts of major disasters on hubs of civilizations throughout history and illustrates how communities often improve tremendously in periods of re-growth following major disasters. Large-scale disasters often produce fairly significant benefits in terms of infrastructure improvements and economic growth.

Unfortunately, post-disaster development can also have disastrous effects on the environment and the poor who are often forced out of their homes and neighborhoods in the name of progress and rebuilding. According to Rosario, “The social and environmental costs of development have been rendered invisible by dominant articulations of American progress.”

And, the disaster-as-gold rush paradigm is shifting. The country is no longer quite as willing as it once was to rush into rebuilding disaster-impaired communities. As Rosario points out:

In an age of energy crises, terrorist attacks, global warming and global financial instability, progress no longer seems quite so inevitable. Disasters increasingly present themselves as manifestations of a catastrophic world rather than as instruments of improvement.

Unfortunately, we've stacked the deck against ourselves. There are now more people and more structures in natural disaster prone areas than ever before. And because we show no signs of reversing carbon emissions in any meaningful way, we should expect crazy weather patterns to be the norm rather than the exception, suggesting that we should be prepared for a future filled with post-disaster rebuilding.

Let’s face facts - there aren’t many areas of the country that are not subject to some sort of natural disaster, whether they be floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes or even droughts. Damage could be minimized by moving communities out of places like floodplains and coastlines, or not building there to begin with. But of course, we have already built hundreds, maybe thousands, of communities in such areas and in the United States, we expend major resources to engineer our way out of trouble.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers excels at this. Nature has become the new enemy. During this year’s efforts to mitigate flooding, they even referred to the campaign as the “2011 Flood Fight.” It certainly would behoove us to become much less combative and figure out how to start working with nature.

What, then, is the opportunity that lies before us if we are to face a tumultuous future? The answer is sustainable development. With our population in the United States racing towards 400 million by 2050, we have an opportunity to build (and rebuild) sustainable communities.

Greensburg, Kansas is an excellent example of this. After the entire town was wiped out by an F5 tornado in 2007, town residents made the bold decision to “rebuild Greensburg as a living example of sustainability and responsibility,” thereby creating the world’s first eco-town. All public buildings were to be constructed to LEED Platinum standards (the highest level rating). To spur growth, the town turned itself into an incubator for new sustainable businesses.

The town’s rebuilding hasn’t been without issues. Contractors unfamiliar with environmental requirements have caused delays and residents have faced frustration over the slow rate of progress. Also, while you can move away from a flood plain, towns like Greensburg lie in tornado alley--which covers a wide swath of the country--so the town lives with the constant threat of being wiped out by another tornado. In a year filled with heavy tornado activity, it’s easy to imagine that the possibility must be on every resident’s mind.

Apparently, though, the people of Greensburg have been able to look past these issues and have chosen sustainability as a driving force for their redevelopment. As communities like Tuscaloosa and Joplin and those affected by flooding in the Mississippi River basin begin their own redevelopment, let’s hope they too choose sustainability. Let’s hope that residents of those communities understand that redevelopment is no longer strictly a business opportunity but also a social and environmental commitment. Let’s hope they understand that the sustainable option can also become a profitable option.

One thing America can be confident in is its ability to face and overcome challenges – to rebuild. Although natural disasters come at great costs, let’s take the opportunities that they provide us and redefine our exceptionalism. Let’s build a sustainable future that can withstand uncertainties.