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Reposition Don't Rebuild Post Disaster



Rebuilding or Repositioning: Lessons for Sandy, New Orleans, and Elsewhere

Edward J. Blakelya

University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW, Australia


February 7, 2009 is literally and figuratively seared into many Australian minds with graphic descriptions of conflagrations in the Kinglake hills and many other areas outside Melbourne that destroyed 2100 homes, killed 173 people, and came within hours of racing down the hills to encroach upon the City of Melbourne. When the embers were doused, then Premier John Brumby said “They [the dead] unite us all in the task of rebuilding. Because we will rebuild [sic]” (Blakely, 2009). He was, unfortunately, wrong. We can never and should never rebuild what was because the old settlement geographic, economic, and societal position is no longer sustainable.

Since Black Saturday there have been fires and floods in Australia of similar impact magnitude such as the Brisbane floods in 2010 that caused damages over

$1 billion killing 38 people along with subsequent well-known devastation in the Australia–New Zealand region, such as the Christchurch earthquakes of 2011, destroying one of the New Zealand’s most beautiful cities killing 185 people, some of whom were immigrant students caught in a freak accident.

Finally, but by no means complete is the tragedy that hits the American Eastern Seaboard in 2012 doing more than $33 billion in damage that threatened Wall Street, the global trading center, with total closure. All these separate events have a common thread. They are in or near wealthy dense and economically important global centers. As a result, re-creating or rebuilding these places was never in doubt.

No matter how important these places are, serious questions regarding their rebuilding have to be asked, focused not on whether, but how, to rebuild. After a major urban disaster, we cannot, no matter how strong the popular or political rhetoric, go

back to the past for superficial demographics and economic reasons. Urban systems, over the past 100 years, have sought to thwart nature and its associated processes. Urban planners and engineers facilitated the development of a regional land use pat- tern sprawling across the landscape. In these halcyon days, building against nature became a central tenant. Beginning in the 1920s and accelerating after the Second World War, urban nature-defying systems emerged, with infrastructure projects tak- ing the form of bridges, channelization of water courses, levies, sea walls, and tun- nels (to name a few) we use today. We now inhabit cities that are based upon seeking to on degrading, often wrongfully conceived infrastructure. Cities directly threatened by seas and rivers erected skyscrapers on landfill and erected sea walls and other treatments. At the same time, our regional demographic profiles are changing into an aging urban population in many developed nations, in parallel with many develop- ing nations experiencing huge population growth and shifts to urban areas. Overall this has lead to disproportionate numbers living in fragile areas that cannot sustain the increasingly severe weather regimes brought on by even small climatic changes. Climate change, such as those evidenced by mountain glacier retreat and other indi- cators around the world, is devastating for agriculture and human settlement. As humans we resist the changes in our settlements that might help our current generation survive. And if we do not make the sacrifices required to adapt and improve current settlement patterns, there stands the very real risk of condemning future generations to having to live in unsustainable ways in increasingly fragile environments. Thus, catastrophes are compounded by our current building locations, spatial planning systems, and supply and transportation chains that date back to the post–World War II era. Post–World War II building assumed a different form of settlement pattern with low-density growth in extended suburbs, or in developing nations and Europe, it failed to meet the growing autooriented cultural demands. Volcanoes and earthquakes impacting upon settlements in Europe, North and South America, and most recently the Asian Pacific, “Due to their far-reaching effects on climate, food security, transportation, and supply chains, these

events have the potential to trigger global disaster and catastrophe” (Gray, 2015).

Asia is particularly vulnerable to new earthquake and flooding because of the poor design of much older and some new infrastructure that disregards basic climatic change. China’s recent and continuing foods and buildings collapse in the wake of rains and severe weather and compounded by building massive dams and other infra- structure over sensitive habitat. Moreover, even well-planned and relatively dense European models adopted in other locations are now over seven decades old and require enormous investments to match rising urbanization levels and new lifestyles, combined with aging populations in central city areas. So the usual mantra from politicians to rebuild postdisaster is patently incorrect and dangerous. We have to reposition not merely rebuild (Lai, 2011).


My experience in disaster recovery, as an expert charged with the task of rebuilding in Oakland, California, New York, and New Orleans (Rebuild by Design, n.d.), is that

Introduction 65

the “need” to get back to normal overwhelms the opportunity to move to a smarter future. Here are several issues worthy of consideration as we embark on rebuilding cities and regions around the world.

We have an increasingly diverse population that requires houses, jobs, and socio- economic equity and security. So, the issues are joined. Continuing major disasters presents an opportunity for the region to confront the need to reposition our regions to be genuinely resilient to meet the needs of many scenario futures and not simply replicating an unsustainable past.

Leading with Information: The impulse to get back to the “old days” is strong. As a result, important information about the community vulnerabilities and possibili- ties is not examined before political and community forces push to re-create a version of conditions that existed before the disaster event. This nostalgia is an important social response. But we have to present the community with information on who is living in the communities and region and what they are facing. Many communities’ demographics make single home rebuilding difficult in contemporary circumstances. In Japan’s horrific tsunami in 2011, the vast majority of residents were senior citizens in their 1970s and 1980s (Fig. 5.1), so what is to be rebuilt for them, individual or collective dwellings?

Residential populations over 65 are often reluctant to go through rebuilding pro- cesses that can take 2 or 3 years. Further, the new building standards often mean that costs exceed homeowners’ insurance. Moreover, evacuations in new events are extremely difficult for aging populations. In some cases, these seniors elect to move to new areas closer to relatives or health facilities. As a result, rebuilding often occurs with large numbers of vacant areas in blocks, making provision of services difficult and the leaving neighborhoods looking forlorn and incomplete for long periods.

66 CHAPTER 5 Rebuilding or Repositioning

Finally, some homes or apartments are simply situated in areas or built in ways that increase flooding and run off or cannot be protected from sea surge of high wind events. Relocating these units is painful, but it is necessary to protect other areas and residents. However, we are often held back by:

• 1:100 year Syndrome—the belief that large-scale events occur only once in every 100 years; so why should we worry? If we just had an event, we will not have another one for 100 years, right? No, that is wrong. Here, 1 in 100 means a 1 in 100 chance that the event will occur in a given year. These data are revised periodically but are often not well understood by planners or residents.

Cumulative impacts are particularly difficult when a zone is designated as a 1 in 100 zone without cognizance of the adjacent building that can be subsequently built well away from the planned suburb that will increase stream flows or cover over land masses that previously held or carried water.

Moreover, many urban areas have networks of streams and waterways under- ground. Some of these were merely filled in like the waterways that flow under New Orleans. Several hundred years ago, what is now New Orleans was a network of islands. Over the years these islands were merged by ongoing land filling or creating a network of conduits to move water away from buildings.

Both New York City and New Orleans Canal Street connote actual waterways built over a long ago. We are now at the point where rebuilding requires the resurrection or at least rethinking of how these natural systems should be used to prevent future damage and in some cases to actually improve the character of neighborhoods (Fig. 5.2).

• Social and Economic Equity Issues—are magnified after disaster. Communities that have few resources may be pitted against those that appear to have more resources. In many cases, this is more perception than reality. Nonetheless, some communities poorly located prestorm house more than their share of lower income, elderly or minorities. Early planning for recovery has to be sensitive to these issues. In some cases, these socially sensitive areas are the most vulnerable and relocations or other options have to be considered and handled carefully (Fig. 5.3).

The Ninth Ward in New Orleans is among the most disadvantaged neighbor- hoods in the city. It is also an area extremely vulnerable to flooding as much of the area is close to many of the levees. The cost benefits of rebuilding some of the Ninth Ward communities made it hard to justify reconstruction. But

the emotional issues are substantial and have real cost to families’ mental and physical health as well as their long-term financial resources. Even if compen- sated for a lost home, a new place to live in a community with few afford- able areas is difficult—not to mention the burden of reestablishing in a new neighborhood. As a recovery director, my team and I, as shown in Fig. 5.4, talked to locals working hard to find the best solution to this thorny problem. Several approaches were used in this case that can be used postdisaster in many places.

Introduction 67

• Insourcing—Rather than outsource work to large companies headquartered outside the city or even the country, we developed a process called insourc- ing or using local human and physical capital wherever possible. We created new rules for local neighborhood restoration by using local as the primary source of labor to restore local facilities in their community. We were cre- ative in using community-based nonprofits as a vehicle to contract through to meet government accountability rules. This approach restored community pride as well as leading to many local innovations in replacing local infra- structure such as street lights, using nonpotable flood water for cleaning and other outcomes. Moreover, this process infused money and jobs back into the communities that desperately needed work.

Repair Versus Reposition 69

• New Neighborhoods—Since old neighborhoods in the low-lying areas were destroyed, we had to rethink what a resilient community would look like. We commissioned local planners and architects to rethink and design more resilient communities incorporating work centers, such as community cooperative stores and outdoor markets. We also realigned houses by allowing the reconfigura- tion of lot lines, so larger safer homes could be assembled on higher ground in certain areas. This process was complex, but we were able to craft local rules to permit this. This approach allowed many flood victims to return home earlier and accommodate other relatives in expanded homes in their old neighborhoods.

• Re-creating Neighborhoods—Since there was considerable abandoned prop- erty both prehurricane and posthurricane, we decide to leverage these assets by aggregating or moving abandoned homes onto new lots to generate more local density in communities, thus generating a large enough resident popu- lation to reach the thresholds to reopen stores and offer other civic amenities, such as libraries and reopen schools.

• Recovery Amnesia—sets in within the first 6months. As the weather improves and normal life returns, the storm seems distant and the concern of residents recedes.

More pressing local issues loom larger for residents, such as local elections and the like. Not only does the storm become less memorable, memories of it become increasingly distorted to justify all kinds of actions or inactions. One or two years

after the event many people are in denial, so it is important to do as much as possible to change the frame of reference to long-term rebuilding as early as possible and act on delivery of cornerstone projects in place early. People want to go back home, so they place their memories of the past ahead of current realities. Once, most residents and businesses restart the events of the recent past fade and they rationalize that “we had the worst hit us, so it will be a long time before it will happen again.”

There are many ways to deal with this issue. The best is a strong continuing pub- lic education program such as the San Francisco Bay area. In the Bay area annual drills and exercises are held in cities to prepare and remind residents of their duties in case of disaster. Part of these programs are graphic reminders of past disasters with local failures in the response system. Japan has a national program, which incorpo- rates local drills in the use of evacuation routes and shelters.

Finally, school programs are important because children born postdisaster have no recall. Again, the State of California and the Netherlands are very advanced in school-based resilience education as well as disaster response training for school age children. These efforts to prepare are just as useful in repositioning as other mitiga- tions. Memorial buildings and statues are important, but they are static so that they do not carry continuing reminders that harness public consciousness.


Quick repairs to restore power and essential services are important, but they should not undermine the fact that these services failed. So, very early on new alternatives

70 CHAPTER 5 Rebuilding or Repositioning

have to be raised in the public debate on how many public resources and some pri- vate ones might be repositioned in profound and effective ways. This means that new funding will have to be found, or other incentives such as tax breaks need to be designed to alter these vital delivery services. Other private resource deliveries, such as gasoline and food, also have to be reconfigured so that they have longer lasting supplementary power and related utilities via distributed energy, natural gas, or other forms of redundancy.

Future Proofing goes well beyond good environmental design. A future that includes a more diverse population in terms of residents’ age and in parallel diverse building typologies in many neighborhoods will allow future change to occur more readily. The reasons for this are many, but the most important one is that this diversity brings younger and more able populations into communities, thus making them more stable by increasing local retailing and improving the chances of getting all ages out of harm’s way in an extreme event.

Environmental design is critical. Mechanisms to facilitate neighborhoods become more self-reliant with local, decentralized water and power with insulated power producing housing, sometimes described as distributed systems (as opposed to more brittle centralized systems). Every community can and should have some food grow- ing and food storage facilities, as well as inward evacuation systems using schools, churches, and local facilities as the first refuge for the able to sustain their inhabitants during large-scale catastrophes.

Rebuild by Design, which was created after superstorm Sandy, is a nationally financed effort challenging US communities to come up with creative solutions using natural or innovative processes to both rebuild but reposition and make communities smarter economically and more resilient to natural and man-made disasters. Rebuild by Design has captured the collective imagination of 141 cities and involved over 100 local, state, and federal government agency partnerships in coming up with collaborative processes that restore devastated communities by crafting projects that make them far safer for the present and alter the dangerous course of repeating past disasters (Rebuild by Design, n.d.). Another example is Japan, which has a network of national disaster preparedness and prevention centers that work with provincial and local governments to create innovative responses to the multitude of disasters that a great nation faces. Preparing and learning from world disasters allow Japan to preconfigure assets well ahead of disasters. Even with all of this preparedness the Fukushima Daiichi tsunami overwhelmed national capacities.


There are competing visions of how to handle large-scale disaster events. Some proposals are entirely based on extensive environmental remediation, whereas others rely more on improved technology and engineering such as sea walls and

Competing Recovery Visions 71

barriers. The Dutch approach is to use both soft and hard infrastructure where appropriate and to invest in more community-level programs so people can live with water using sensitive design. Dutch schools have an extensive water curricu- lum to educate future generations on water as a way of life, thus reducing the postevent amnesia that affects all of us as the lessons from a catastrophe recede in public memory.

Dueling Plans—In the New Orleans case, within weeks, local groups, architects, planners, and communities commenced replanning efforts. This is a good thing. However, in many instances the communities used different information bases for their plans, thus creating enormous confusion over possible futures. While getting as many ideas as possible on the table is important, it is also important to generate them from a common base at least. A common scale and scope for plans is also essen- tial, as some plans actually disrupt other communities, generating new conflicts. So, to the extent possible, a regional planning framework that set common information and templates is a good idea. To the extent possible, planning information and com- munity as well as local leader education/information should precede and be part of ongoing communications to act as a base for all plans. If possible, a common plan- ning repository should be developed so that everyone at every level can keep track of the planning process (Fig. 5.5).

In New Orleans, we were faced with multiple neighborhood and regional plans. All these plans had good ideas about the needs of the past and restoration

72 CHAPTER 5 Rebuilding or Repositioning

of places and communities, but few contained a holistic view of the entire city and region combining social, economic, and environmental visions. Eventually, we were able to fashion an overall plan incorporating aspirations with sound economic and environmental knowledge with considerable community input (Blakely, 2012).


Economic revitalization and repositioning are essential. A megastorm not only disrupts the current economy, but some firms also do not survive financially and physically. In many cases, small community-based and even regional firms lose too much of their customer base to continue. In addition, the world will move on of its own accord while communities recover. During national disasters and the associ- ated long recovery periods, the central firms in the local economy may lose their competitive edge. For example, Kobe, Japan was one of the top five shipping cities in the world when it suffered a disastrous earthquake in 1995. By the time the city reached normality almost a decade later, it was no longer an important shipping center and many of the auto firms dependent on Kobe’s port had relocated to other port cities. Two decades after the earthquake, the demographics reflect the manner in which change has occurred: only 40% of the residents in the city were living in the city at the time of the earthquake and few residents work in any prequake firms. Kobe, like many places, had to find a new economic base while it rebuilt. Another illustration is Aceh, Indonesia, where a Tsunami wiped out local fishing villages in 2004. Experts in the national recovery agency and international experts determined that the safest course of action was to build new villages a kilometer or so from the ravages of another tsunami. For the local villagers, this was untenable economi- cally. Village fishermen needed to be close to the sea to insure catching their daily income. So, they moved as close to the ocean as they could. They knew the danger, but they calculated mentally and from old stories another tsunami would not hit for many years.

After superstorm Sandy in New York, there were fears that the New York Stock Exchange was located too close to the Harbor. While the Exchange has not moved its historic building, many of the functions and employees are now in far-flung locations across the Hudson in New Jersey and others as far away as Dallas, Texas.


Disaster recovery means balancing the past with the future. It is important to show a new path to a better future, rather than suggesting options that fail to recognize preservation of the past as an important element of finding improved and more resil- ient communities. The way to deal with this is to create a new long-term direction to reconfiguring the rebuilt assets to confront new economic realities. Some sectors will have to rethink where they are going and others will be a position to add new value

Repositioning Opportunities

to the economy. Health care and construction can use large events to develop better and smarter delivery systems reaching new populations, or with new products and services. New firms can arise in the emergency services fields with export capacity as well as new environmentally sensitive products and services, including food produc- tion and distribution. Transportation infrastructure along with telecommunications is a key sector for renewing with potential for new spin-offs. New Orleans is an apt illustration. During the recovery, a group of community leaders led a campaign to use the rebuilding of the city central district into a new modern biomedical center. New Orleans is now home to one of the US largest health and biomedical complexes. In this case the disaster created a new opportunity that the community seized—not without opposition and struggles—to transform the city’s base economy away from tourism and shipping, which generated more well-paying jobs and revitalized the heart of the city (Fig. 5.6).

Underlying issues can often hamper recovery. Many communities have long- term issues with deep roots that need serious examination postdisaster. One of the most difficult and vexing ones can be the organization of local government(s). Local governance in the United States, for example, is quite fragmented, slowing respon- siveness and limiting effectiveness both during and after a disaster. While issues of government may seem too hard, these issues need to be tackled at the time when the problems are most visible. Similarly, the apparent hydraheaded monster of utilities accountability and leadership needs to be addressed while it is fresh in the recovery process.

Several other recovery repositioning programs in developing nations are worth noting. Chile is a prime example of using postearthquake opportunities to upgrade slums and generate new housing finance and funding strategies that generated new construction methods that were quicker and more resilient than the former hous- ing approaches. The Chilean model has gained international recognition and is now

74 CHAPTER 5 Rebuilding or Repositioning

promoted by the World Bank and donor agencies as the best approach to rebuilding the entire community and not rebuilding with the same social and economic inequi- ties along with continuing one house at a time on the rebuilding approach. We see too frequently, in Chile over 12 months, a program was developed to create a series of temporary shelter villages, and a system of recovery housing subsidies were estab- lished; risk-based land use plans were conducted in various coastal areas; a finance plan was adopted; changes to the national emergency management agency were made; and rapid payment of insurance claims were completed (Siembieda, Johnson, & Franco, 2012).

While national governments are often highly engaged as Chile demonstrates, recovery is not free of the challenges associated with receiving national government money. Local agencies will usually have to form new structures such as public pri- vate partnerships to deliver rebuilding projects. Much of the long-term financing will require state and local as well as private matches. Moreover, issues from sea walls and some environmental mitigation will attract federal resources, but much of the local rebuilding will need local or state funding over a long and sustained period. California’s building retrofit programs post–Loma Prieda Earthquake of 1986 required substantial building buttressing in public and private buildings, including incentives to improve home stabilization systems. California issued a large voter- backed bond financing scheme to achieve this informing citizens that it might take more than a decade to complete. Creative thinking in an antitax environment such as the United States is required. California is an illustration in which the public is prepared to fund items such as storm surge property removals, coastal and waterway restoration, and evacuation routes and home physical design security that insulate them from known dangers with visible, measurable progress and accountability as part of the package.


Based on direct lessons learned, this chapter aims to challenge the paradigm of “rebuild right now here in the same way things stood in the past.” National legisla- tion in many nations requires or strongly encourages rebuilding the same public buildings where they were, to serve the same mission they did in the past. In fact, the past is not prologue. In too many cases what was built years ago does not serve a new changed world. Moreover, older style building, which was led by engineers, has now often demonstrated itself to be environmentally destructive, so repeating the conditions that contributed to disaster is not only lacking sense, but it is also the pre- cursor to new disasters based on a changed ecological terrain and climate change.

So, the intelligent thing to do postdisaster is to look to the future and mitigate environment, social, and community political issues that harm the area from moving forward. As described earlier, physical disasters frequently reveal cleavages in the social order that need to be dealt with so the community is truly restored to a more

From Here to Where 75

robust functioning and health. In addition, building on disturbed earth systems will often lead to future hazardous events. Water systems will often find ways of doing damage unless new ways are found to live with and to accommodate it, rather than to try to conquer them above or below ground.

Repositioning we suggest has four elements:

1. Making peace with nature—Since political geographies do not define natural systems, a deep analysis of the geotechnical environment is necessary. The rebuilding strategy has to take the entire natural system into consideration before any structures are put in place or we are simply creating the path of destruction for the next disaster.

2. Repairing social structures first—Socioeconomic disparities are laid bare post- disaster. These cleavages in the social system will impede and perhaps destroy the rebuilding process unless they are dealt with head on. This means the people deeply affected by the tragedy must be directly involved in developing the options for the future. And where possible and feasible, local people should be employed in the rebuilding process.

3. Economic rebalancing—The local economy losses its competitive position after any disaster. Money moves away from damager. New trade routes are established and firms move away. So it is important not only to restore the old economy but also to find a new future economy. Repositioning the local assets in new way is critical to this process as we have detailed here.

4. Collaboration and competition—It is critical for damaged communities to regain their competitive position. When they are damaged, it is too easy to become a mendicant. There is not future in feeling sorry for the people or the place. Thus, new partnerships and collaborations have to be formed to move the community back into the main stream of regional and national and perhaps international participation. The world does not stop for any place.


The case to reposition is clear. But before deciding to reposition, a region and its communities must have a firm grip on where they are with respect to their current geophysical system having assessed what needs to be changed for a more sustainable future. Similarly, regional economic and social accounts need to be undertaken to explore what options and opportunities exist for transforming the region in the future along with what strategies are required to get to a new economic regime. Thus, if the region (cities sharing a common geoeconomic shed) is already operating as a system, it has the capacity to implement needed changes postdisaster or incremen- tally according to some form of regional planning process. In essence, long-term well-informed plans are the bedrock of constructing and repositioned future after any form of calamity.

76 CHAPTER 5 Rebuilding or Repositioning

Planning for the future is the best antidote postdisaster. Plans are the glue that holds the community together and the springboard for constructive action. New York’s PlaNYC was invoked after superstorm Sandy calming city residents and placing city leadership in a unique position to deal with longstanding capital infra- structure, economic, and social policy needs (The City of New York, 2016). Cities, regions, and communities that plan for a future can move quickly to rebound from disasters. Those that fail to design a future usually languish postdisaster for long periods because they have no common platform to deal with the present tragedy and run the risk of trying to get to the future by looking for the past.

Resilience is the new concept, which incorporates the ideas articulated here. It is a more useful and powerful construct than sustainable or smart because it deals not only with mitigation but also with the construction of new ways to build for the pres- ent and recover in the future.


Blakely, E. (2009). Life after Black Saturday. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from

Blakely, E. (2012). My Storm: Managing the recovery of New Orleans in the wake of Katrina.

University of Pennsylvania Press.

Gray, R. (2015). Will a volcanic eruption destroy humanity? Scientists warn that world must begin preparing for explosive global catastrophe. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail. warn-world-begin-preparing-explosive-global-catastrophe.html#ixzz4HSbUDmxQ.

Lai, E. C.-Y. (2011). Climate change impacts on China’s environment: Biophysical impacts.

China Environment Forum: Wilson Center.

Rebuild by Design. (n.d.). Rebuild by design. Retrieved from what-is-rebuild-by-design/.

Siembieda, W., Johnson, L., & Franco, G. (2012). Rebuild fast but rebuild better: Chile’s initial recovery following the 27 February 2010 earthquake and tsunami. Earthquake Spectra, 28(S1).

The City of New York. (2016). One NYC. Retrieved from


Urban Planning for Disaster Recovery. 63

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