Design Architecture

After Disaster: 8 U.S. Cities That Went from Ruin to Rebirth

Whether leveled by tornadoes, flooded by hurricanes, or scorched by fires, these great American cities have risen from the rubble to become revitalized burgs bearing little resemblance to the ruins they once were.

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Before: Greensburg, Kansas via FEMA Photo Library 

On the evening of May 4, 2007, Greensburg residents witnessed a punishing weather event—the most powerful twister in almost a decade—when an EF5 tornado (the most damaging on the Enhanced Fujita scale) struck the town of 1,265 and then traveled some 22 miles, hitting Main Street, the downtown, and surrounding homes, schools, and businesses. By the time the dust had settled, the twister had leveled 95 percent of the Western Kansas town and caused an estimated $268 million in damage.

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After: Greensburg, Kansas via Ichabod; via J. Stephen Conn

In the wake of the tornado, the Greensburg City Council vowed to rebuild the town in accordance with the principles of the LEED green-building certification program, becoming the first city in the nation to adopt the standard. Their tireless efforts paid off: Wind turbines and solar panels now power the city, the Greensburg City Hall and hospital meet the highest LEED certification level, and the city continues to work toward achieving this level of certification for all city buildings. The reborn Greensburg can now proudly call itself one of the greenest cities in the country.

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Before: St. Louis, Missouri

Archival Photograph by Mr. Steve Nicklas, NOS, NGS

The third most destructive tornado in history hit the unsuspecting city of St. Louis on the evening of May 27, 1896, leaving in its wake a mile-wide expanse of downed trees and telephone poles as well as dilapidated homes, factories, parks, and other city landmarks. The tornado went on to wreak havoc in East St. Louis, Illinois, causing cumulative damages of $25 million, or around $700 million in today’s dollars.

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After: St. Louis, Missouri

The upcoming national election of 1896 helped spur the rapid rebuilding efforts in St. Louis. Residents came together like never before to remove debris, shelter homeless neighbors, and gradually rebuild homes, factories, schools, and other important structures. Only one month after the tornado, St. Louis welcomed the Republican National Convention, and eight years later it hosted the World’s Fair, an international exposition attended by nearly 20 million people. Today, St. Louis is a thriving metropolis of around 315,000, home to large corporations, two major league sports teams, and 100 parks.

Related: 10 U.S. Towns That Are Older Than America

Before: San Francisco, California via National Archives Catalog

The City by the Bay is known to be prime quake territory, but few Californians could have predicted the scale and destructive power of the earthquake that struck San Francisco on April 18, 1906. Dubbed the “Great Quake,” the seismic shock with an estimated magnitude between 7.8 and 8.3 on the Richter scale uprooted brick and frame houses, broke water pipelines, snapped trees, and ultimately destroyed 80 percent of the city. Surprisingly, 90 percent of the damage was produced not by the earthquake itself, but by a series of fires that blazed through the city in the aftermath of the quake, razing 28,000 buildings. The disaster caused an estimated $480 million in combined earthquake and fire damage ($12.4 billion today).

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After: San Francisco, California

It’s no coincidence that the flag of the city of San Francisco depicts a phoenix rising from ashes; the city had experienced earthquakes before and had recovered from them, and it would successfully rebuild itself after this calamity too. Once the rubble was hauled away, the original street grid was restored but with modern enhancements, including more high-capacity urban roads, wider boulevards, and a revamped Fisherman’s Wharf. The rebuilding efforts eventually led to the full restoration of the city—and of its reputation as a financial and cultural mecca in the West.

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Before: Galveston, Texas via Library of Congress

In 1900, the island city of Galveston found itself in the path of a hurricane that would eventually come to be known as the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. The Galveston hurricane made landfall as a Category 4 storm on September 8, destroying 80 percent of the city and causing $21 million ($600 million today) in damage. The ruin was so widespread that area investors, who until then had seen the city as an economic powerhouse, began to turn their financial sights northward to Houston.

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After: Galveston, Texas

Not discouraged by the disaster, Galveston rapidly restored water, mail, telegraph, and shipping services, then went to work to elevate the city 17 feet using dredged sand. This effort was coupled with the construction of the Galveston Seawall, a now 10-mile-long coastal barrier, to protect its residents from future hurricanes. The seawall is on the National Register of Historic Places and was designated a National Civil Engineering Landmark in 2001. As for the economy of Galveston, it has made a marked turnaround; the city now hosts thriving financial, medical, tourism, and shipping industries.

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Before: Chicago, Illinois

What began as a small fire near a family barn quickly escalated into the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. During the two days that the fire raged, it destroyed 3.3 square miles of the city, damaging roads, sidewalks, lampposts, and some 17,500 buildings. Despite the valiant efforts of firefighters, the blaze was not completely extinguished until the city received a providential rainfall. By that time, Chicago had already incurred $200 million in property damage, which would amount to $3.9 billion in today’s dollars.

Related: 11 Common Causes of House Fires and How to Prevent Them

After: Chicago, Illinois

From the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire rose a movement that would become known as the “Great Rebuilding.” With this renaissance came a new breed of heat-resistant buildings constructed of fireproof materials like brick, stone, marble, and terra-cotta roof tiles. It also heralded the rise of the Chicago School, a group of architects who designed sturdy high-rises with ample natural light, neoclassical elements, and spare ornamentation. The modern skyscrapers that now shape the skylines of Chicago and other major cities were heavily influenced by such Chicago School architects as William LeBaron Jenney and Louis Sullivan.

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Before: Anchorage, Alaska via U.S. Army

Little did Anchorage residents know that on Good Friday in 1964 they would confront the most powerful earthquake on record in the United States—and the second most powerful in the world. Registering 9.2 on the Richter scale, the four-and-a-half-minute quake and subsequent tsunamis in nearby coastal towns led to the collapse of houses, schools, and other noteworthy buildings as well as heavy damage to streets, transportation routes, and ports. The historic event racked up $350 million in property damage, which amounts to around $2.8 billion in today’s dollars.

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After: Anchorage, Alaska

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent $100 million to clear debris and rebuild roads in Anchorage, while additional federal relief funds went toward rebuilding ruined infrastructure. The sizable investment certainly paid off: The reborn city is Alaska’s most populous and has earned the title of “All-America City” four times from the National Civic League. Although Alaska remains a hotbed for earthquakes, the creation of the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in the aftermath of the earthquake established 24/7 seismic event monitoring that can help predict natural disasters and prevent the events of 1964 from repeating.

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Before: Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Few city structures were left unscathed by the multiple-vortex tornado that ripped through Tuscaloosa on April 27, 2011. The EF4-rated twister took down schools, cellphone towers, homes, and apartment buildings before moving on to Birmingham. By the time the tornado dissipated, it had traveled a total of 80.7 miles and caused $2.4 billion in property damage

Related: 16 Iconic American Homes Torn Down Before Their Time

After: Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Although rebuilding efforts are still underway in Tuscaloosa six years after the 2011 twister, the city has made important strides toward complete restoration. The city investment of over $100 million has spurred on the rebuilding of homes and the construction of new retail stores, restaurants, and arts and sports venues. As a symbol that the city has overcome but not forgotten the events of 2011, Tuscaloosa is currently building a recreational walkway that will span the long path of the historic tornado.

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Before: New Orleans, Louisiana

U.S. Navy

Although Hurricane Katrina’s effects were seen and felt from Central Florida to Texas, the deluge unleashed on New Orleans rendered the iconic city unrecognizable. Nearly 80 percent of the city and surrounding parishes were flooded, destroying or damaging 800,000 housing units and causing over $81 billion in property damage. The extent of damage made Katrina the costliest hurricane in U.S. history.

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After: New Orleans, Louisiana

Twelve years after the calamity of Katrina, the population of New Orleans has grown to roughly 90 percent of its pre-Katrina level, and bustling crowds have returned to hot spots like the revitalized Central Business District and the French Quarter. The influx has been facilitated in large part by reconstruction efforts that have included the rebuilding of schools, businesses, and more than 80 percent of the city’s damaged homes as well as enhancements to the city’s levees. Even as the city continues to rebuild residential communities and resettle residents, New Orleans has improved its livability score and regained its cultural prominence.

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