Learning from history: the relief and rebuilding of New Orleans

Quite a few people have pointed to the responses to natural disasters in the past as models for the re-building of New Orleans after the Katrina disaster which is in reality still ongoing. The Wall Street Journal, for example, had an article that quickly summarized several disasters and concluded that, of course, New Orleans would rebound. To the best of my knowledge none of those pointing to these historic disasters and disaster responses have examined the events they’re citing critically or have used them in anything other than a talismanic sense. A quick review of three notable disasters in American history—the Chicago Fire of 1871, the Galveston Storm of 1900, and the San Francisco Earthquake of 1900—might be instructive.

The Chicago Fire of 1871

The great Chicago Fire of 1871 began in the evening of Sunday, October 8, 1871, burned for more than 24 hours, and when the fire was finally put out (by rain) in the early hours of Tuesday, October 10, roughly one third of the city had been destroyed (the “best part” including the business district and adjacent areas). 300 people had been killed; 90,000 left homeless; the property loss was estimated to be around $200 million. The “Burnt District” was about 2,000 acres—roughly 4 square miles.

By Monday morning while the fire was still burning the mayor, Mayor Roswell B. Mason had already sent telegrams to other cities asking for men and equipment and issued proclamations that fixed the price of bread, banned smoking, limited the hours of saloons, and forbade wagon drivers from charging more than their normal rates. The Common Council President Charles C.P. Holden appointed a select committee of elected officials and prominent citizens. This group established a Relief Committee which organized and administered the relief of the stricken citizens and raised money. Total contributions for relief finally amounted to about $5 million.

Martial law was never officially declared. There were many reports of looting, arson, etc. A day after the fire the Chicago Evening Journal wrote:

“The city is infested with a horde of thieves, burglars, and cut-throats, bent on plunder, and who will not hesitate to burn, pillage, and even murder, as opportunity may seem to offer to them to do so with safety”.

By October 13 the mayor had taken two extraordinary steps: he appointed Lt-General Philip Sheridan to maintain order in the city and he turned relief efforts over to Chicago Relief and Aid Society, an organization which had existed for some time and which included on its board Old Settlers and a group of younger businessmen and professionals who had a stake in the future of the city including merchant Marshall Field, sleeping car manufacturer George Pullman, and attorney Wirt Dexter. Mayor Mason said:

“I have deemed it best for the interest of the city to turn over to the Chicago Relief and Aid Society all contributions for the suffering people of this city. This Society is an incorporated and old established organization, having possessed for many years the entire confidence of our community, and is familiar with the work to be done.”

For the next two weeks Sheridan oversaw a de facto martial law with a force that included regular troops, militia, police, and vigilantes (called the “First Regiment of Chicago Volunteers”). They patrolled the streets, guarded relief warehouses, and enforced a curfew.

The actions of the Relief and Aid Committee were remarkable, organized, and scientific. They distributed food, clothing, and materials for shelters, erected barracks for the poor, and performed smallpox vaccinations (more than 64,000 of them).

The “Great Rebuilding” began almost immediately. Mayor Mason set aside October 29 as

“a special day of humiliation and prayer; of humiliation for those past offenses against Almighty God, to which these severe afflictions were doubtless intended to lead our minds; of prayer for the relief and comfort of the suffering thousands in our midst; for the restoration of our material prosperity, especially for our lasting improvement as a people in reverence and obedience to God.”

By 1874 the city had largely been rebuilt and few signs of the fire remained. The rebuilding was accomplished almost exclusively with private investment, philanthropy, planning, and management.

The Great Fire, Chicago Public Library
The Great Chicago Fire, Chicago Historical Society and Northwestern University Trustees
Lessons from the Chicago Fire, Liberty Haven

The Galveston Storm of 1900

On September 8, 1900 a hurricane struck the Galveston, Texas, a city of some 38,000 people. The city was largely built on Galveston Island and the more than 15 foot storm surge that accompanied the hurricane inundated the island and, basically, scoured it. It’s estimated that 12,000 people were killed. The damage was estimated at $30 million (roughly $700 million in today’s terms).

By 10:00am September 9, Mayor Walter C. Jones had appointed a Central Relief Committee. Within one week of the storm telegraph and water service had been restored. The city proceeded with reconstruction and also built a seawall to protect the city from future storms. The overwhelming preponderance of money for rebuilding came from private investment and philanthropy and from the city itself.

The 1900 Storm, Galveston County Daily News
The Galveston Storm of 1900, NOAA

The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906

The earthquake shook down in San Francisco hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of walls and chimneys. But the conflagration that followed burned up hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of property There is no estimating within hundreds of millions the actual damage wrought. Not in history has a modern imperial city been so completely destroyed. San Francisco is gone. Nothing remains of it but memories and a fringe of dwelling-houses on its outskirts. Its industrial section is wiped out. Its business section is wiped out. Its social and residential section is wiped out. The factories and warehouses, the great stores and newspaper buildings, the hotels and the palaces of the nabobs, are all gone. Remains only the fringe of dwelling houses on the outskirts of what was once San Francisco.

Within an hour after the earthquake shock the smoke of San Francisco’s burning was a lurid tower visible a hundred miles away. And for three days and nights this lurid tower swayed in the sky, reddening the sun, darkening the day, and filling the land with smoke.

On Wednesday morning at a quarter past five came the earthquake. A minute later the flames were leaping upward In a dozen different quarters south of Market Street, in the working-class ghetto, and in the factories, fires started. There was no opposing the flames. There was no organization, no communication. All the cunning adjustments of a twentieth century city had been smashed by the earthquake. The streets were humped into ridges and depressions, and piled with the debris of fallen walls. The steel rails were twisted into perpendicular and horizontal angles. The telephone and telegraph systems were disrupted. And the great water-mains had burst. All the shrewd contrivances and safeguards of man had been thrown out of gear by thirty seconds’ twitching of the earth-crust.

The Fire Made its Own Draft

By Wednesday afternoon, inside of twelve hours, half the heart of the city was gone. At that time I watched the vast conflagration from out on the bay. It was dead calm. Not a flicker of wind stirred. Yet from every side wind was pouring in upon the city. East, west, north, and south, strong winds were blowing upon the doomed city. The heated air rising made an enormous suck. Thus did the fire of itself build its own colossal chimney through the atmosphere. Day and night this dead calm continued, and yet, near to the flames, the wind was often half a gale, so mighty was the suck.

Wednesday night saw the destruction of the very heart of the city. Dynamite was lavishly used, and many of San Francisco proudest structures were crumbled by man himself into ruins, but there was no withstanding the onrush of the flames. Time and again successful stands were made by the fire-fighters, and every time the flames flanked around on either side or came up from the rear, and turned to defeat the hard-won victory.

An enumeration of the buildings destroyed would be a directory of San Francisco. An enumeration of the buildings undestroyed would be a line and several addresses. An enumeration of the deeds of heroism would stock a library and bankrupt the Carnegie medal fund. An enumeration of the dead-will never be made. All vestiges of them were destroyed by the flames. The number of the victims of the earthquake will never be known. South of Market Street, where the loss of life was particularly heavy, was the first to catch fire.

Remarkable as it may seem, Wednesday night while the whole city crashed and roared into ruin, was a quiet night. There were no crowds. There was no shouting and yelling. There was no hysteria, no disorder. I passed Wednesday night in the path of the advancing flames, and in all those terrible hours I saw not one woman who wept, not one man who was excited, not one person who was in the slightest degree panic stricken.

Before the flames, throughout the night, fled tens of thousands of homeless ones. Some were wrapped in blankets. Others carried bundles of bedding and dear household treasures. Sometimes a whole family was harnessed to a carriage or delivery wagon that was weighted down with their possessions. Baby buggies, toy wagons, and go-carts were used as trucks, while every other person was dragging a trunk. Yet everybody was gracious. The most perfect courtesy obtained. Never in all San Francisco’s history, were her people so kind and courteous as on this night of terror.

A Caravan of Trunks

All night these tens of thousands fled before the flames. Many of them, the poor people from the labor ghetto, had fled all day as well. They had left their homes burdened with possessions. Now and again they lightened up, flinging out upon the street clothing and treasures they had dragged for miles.

They held on longest to their trunks, and over these trunks many a strong man broke his heart that night. The hills of San Francisco are steep, and up these hills, mile after mile, were the trunks dragged. Everywhere were trunks with across them lying their exhausted owners, men and women. Before the march of the flames were flung picket lines of soldiers. And a block at a time, as the flames advanced, these pickets retreated. One of their tasks was to keep the trunk-pullers moving. The exhausted creatures, stirred on by the menace of bayonets, would arise and struggle up the steep pavements, pausing from weakness every five or ten feet.

Often, after surmounting a heart-breaking hill. they would find another wall of flame advancing upon them at right angles and be compelled to change anew the line of their retreat. In the end, completely played out, after toiling for a dozen hours like giants, thousands of them were compelled to abandon their trunks. Here the shopkeepers and soft members of the middle class were at a disadvantage. But the working-men dug holes in vacant lots and backyards and buried their trunks.

The Doomed City

At nine o’clock Wednesday evening I walked down through the very heart of the city. I walked through miles and miles of magnificent buildings and towering skyscrapers. Here was no fire. All was in perfect order. The police patrolled the streets. Every building had its watchman at the door. And yet it was doomed, all of it. There was no water. The dynamite was giving out. And at right angles two different conflagrations were sweeping down upon it.

At one o’clock in the morning I walked down through the same section Everything still stood intact. There was no fire. And yet there was a change. A rain of ashes was falling. The watchmen at the doors were gone. The police had been withdrawn. There were no firemen, no fire-engines, no men fighting with dynamite. The district had been absolutely abandoned. I stood at the corner of Kearny and Market, in the very innermost heart of San Francisco. Kearny Street was deserted. Half a dozen blocks away it was burning on both sides. The street was a wall of flame. And against this wall of flame, silhouetted sharply, were two United States cavalrymen sitting their horses, calming watching. That was all. Not another person was in sight. In the intact heart of the city two troopers sat their horses and watched.

Spread of the Conflagration

Surrender was complete. There was no water. The sewers had long since been pumped dry. There was no dynamite. Another fire had broken out further uptown, and now from three sides conflagrations were sweeping down. The fourth side had been burned earlier in the day. In that direction stood the tottering walls of the Examiner building, the burned-out Call building, the smoldering ruins of the Grand Hotel, and the gutted, devastated, dynamited Palace Hotel.

The following will illustrate the sweep of the flames and the inability of men to calculate their spread. At eight o’clock Wednesday evening I passed through Union Square. It was packed with refugees. Thousands of them had gone to bed on the grass. Government tents had been set up, supper was being cooked, and the refugees were lining up for free meals.

At half past one in the morning three sides of Union Square were in flames. The fourth side, where stood the great St. Francis Hotel was still holding out. An hour later, ignited from top and sides the St. Francis was flaming heavenward. Union Square, heaped high with mountains of trunks, was deserted. Troops, refugees, and all had retreated.

Jack London, eyewitness to the events

The earthquake began in the early morning hours of April 18, 1906. The fire that followed burned for four days. The death toll was more than 3,000 people. The damages amounted to more than $500 million in 1906 dollars. The fire had destroyed about 8 square miles.

By 3:00pm of the 18th Mayor Schmitz had appointed a “Council of Fifty” to oversee the relief operations, had declared martial law, and had promulgated an order to shoot to kill all looters and other serious lawbreakers:

“Let it be given out that three men have already been shot down without mercy for looting. Let it also be understood that the order has been given to all soldiers and policemen to do likewise without hesitation in the cases of any and all miscreants who may seek to take advantage of the city’s awful misfortune.”

The military units located in San Francisco at the Presidio were instrumental in keeping order, helping to organize relief efforts, and restoring communications to the city. Their actions were not authorized (although they later received approval for their actions from the Secretary of War). They also constructed and maintained refugee camps (some of which were still in use as late as 1908).

Reconstruction of San Francisco was rapid, performed mostly by San Franciscans, and financed almost exclusively by private investment, industry, and philanthropy. San Franciscans are suitably proud of their city’s rebirth: the phoenix rising from the ashes has been adopted as the symbol of the city.

The Great 1906 Earthquake And Fire, Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco
Jack London’s eyewitness account
1906 Earthquake and Fire, National Park Service

New Orleans

The disaster that has occurred in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is enormously larger and will, undoubtedly, be significantly more costly than any of the disasters above. The size of the area affected is hundreds of square miles. We don’t yet know how many people were killed.

There are several key factors that were present in all of the disasters reviewed above:

  • Civil order was maintained immediately (sometimes ruthlessly) even while the disaster was in progress.
  • Reconstruction efforts began immediately and were completely under local (and mostly private) control.
  • Funding for relief and reconstruction was almost exclusively through private investment and philanthropy.
  • Although large parts of all of the cities were destroyed, large parts remained.

None of these factors are true in New Orleans.

New Orleans will be re-built if the people of New Orleans want to re-build it. And if they do it themselves it will be a New Orleans they can be proud of and love. It will be their New Orleans.

If, on the other hand, they wait around for someone else to re-build their city for them, it won’t be the New Orleans they loved. It will belong to somebody else. And New Orleans will be dead.

16 comments… add one
  • Many thanks for that wonderful historical overview. Subsidiarity should definitely be given pride of place where that’s possible. Where it’s not possible because of multi-jurisdicational scope and spill-over effects of actions taken one place having major consequences on another locale — water management and environmental factors such as wetlands being the most obvious — there needs to be an agreed framework within which local decisions can be taken or projects at state or federal levels designed. The politics of trade-offs are going to be extremely challenging – they always are everywhere water’s involved – but necessary and unavoidable.

    As for resources to rebuild, again subsidiarity may be the best guide. The region is the natural home for a lot of nationally-vital economic infrastructure simply due to its unique geography. Maybe that’s where the federal resources should be focused, with local resources devoted to rebulding the city itself.

    I don’t think considerable amounts of government assistance is unwarranted. Unfortunately for New Orleans, it’s not been on an upward curve the way Chicago or SF were at the times of their respective disasters. But the assistance should make things easier for private actors, not replace them. What we want to avoid is creating a bunch of incentives for rent-seeking that would distort local decision-making. For example, just off the top of my head, seems to me the feds could have a positive impact — in terms of encouraging a more compact city to be rebuilt that would be easier to manage and protect from future disasters — by creating incentives to use property insurance proceeds not simply to rebuild on the same land. And since we don’t live in a tabula rasa world, there are also probably a number of existing features of the economic/legal/regulatory/political/financial landscape that produce some perverse incentives that could use some pruning or revising.

  • Thanks, Nadezhda. When I began to read some of the historical comparisons that were being trotted out to comment on the Katrina disaster I was shocked at how flimsy the characterization of the history was. If you’re going to derive benefit from the lessons of history, you’ve got to consider what actually happened rather than some glorified (“…and then the city got rebuilt”) mythology.

    My concern about federal government financial assistance is that with the federal government assistance will, necessarily and properly, come federal control. Your ideas about proper incentives are right on the money.

    Here’s another example we can learn from from the San Francisco Earthquake. Immediately after the disaster the military built housing for those left homeless (the Presidio actually had some of this housing and some of it still stands). After the initial days rents were charged and ratcheted up progressively to motivate people to get out and look for work.

    To my mind that’s the kind of sensible response that uses resources with a mind to how people actually behave.

  • Emergency housing in/close to the port is going to be critical — and it’s going to have to be more than for a few weeks. Those facilities don’t run themselves. And the homes and apartments where most of the employees lived — both in the city itself and surrounding communities — are gone. It will attract folks who want hardship pay premiums, whether they were originally from NO or not. But likely nobody with kids who need schools etc. unless some major attention is paid to that.

    The bigger problem for the sorts of housing/behavior issues you raise is going to be in areas where the refugees have been sent in large numbers. Baton Rouge, all over Texas, Arkansas, etc. And they’re not going to be able to go back to where they came from because of the time it’s going to take simply to dry things out. It’s going to be very hard to absorb all that labor, even if they’re all properly incentivized. And the locals are going to scream if vast numbers of folks are wandering around looking for odd jobs. The fear factor is not inconsiderable anyway, and reinforced by all the pictures of anarchy on TV.

  • Again, I agree completely, Nadezhda. I’ve been told by military folk who were in Kosovo that they built a camp for 1,000,000 people in ten days. The housing that’s going to be needed will be massive and needed soon. It’s not just the poor people who were stranded in New Orleans that need it; the people who were able to flee New Orleans have lost their homes and jobs, too.

    I think that most of the people who have left the storm-stricken area have left for good. There’s nothing to come back to. That reality still hasn’t sunk in with most people.

    And, as I just posted above, the only institution we’ve got with the attitude and resources to construct the necessary housing in the timeframe necessary and keep order is the military.

  • Mary Janelle Link

    This is an absolutely interesting post! I learned so much and appreciate it as well.

  • Thank you, Mary Janelle. I don’t know whether, as George Santayana famously said, “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” but I do believe that if you ignore the lessons of history there’s no chance whatsoever of learning anything from it.

  • From what I have read (from a distance, in France), it appears that the core of the city, that is the French Quarter and the Garden District, are relatively intact.

    In other words, the oldest parts of the city, built on the ground that did not sink, are still there.

    The newer parts built on old swampland that sunk after “reclaimation” are what has been flooded.


    Where do we go from here.

    Many of the refugees will not be returning. I have read and heard (on NPR webcasts) stories of those evacuated from the city who are already seeking jobs in their new locations (yes, seeking jobs, not seeking handouts).

    Many *will* return, or try to do so, because of the special culture and spirit that made New Orleans such a treasure.

    The port of New Orleans also has a significance to the commerce of the United States that is not often recognized, and will have to be rebuilt of necessity.

    Where will the money come from, and what will arise from the ashes (or in this case, the mud)?

    I cannot say.

    Somehow, though, I doubt it will resemble the historical perspective you have provided.

    A century has passed since the last disaster you recount, a century of blood and death, a century of changes in society both subtle and obvious, a century of changes in technology that exceeded ALL the changes of the previous millenium.

    In other words, things have changed, and while those who do not pay attention to history are doomed to repeat it, often, those who expect history to repeat are also disappointed.

  • I think I agree with everything you wrote in your comment, Jack. My point in writing this post was as a counter-point to those (including the Wall Street Journal) that we could look to history for evidence that New Orleans would be rebuilt. I don’t think we’ve learned much from the history of previous disasters in this country. Or, as you say, that we’d be willing to let history be our guide.

    And, as you say, who knows what will happen? New Orleans may, indeed, be rebuilt but I strongly suspect that it will be very different from the old one. My best guess is that it will be a combination support system for the port and theme park.

    I also suspect that there will be a lot fewer poor people in the New Orleans of the future. First, because many will have found a better way of life elsewhere where the economic prospects were better. Second, because the economic prospects of New Orleans itself will be better because of the investment that will enable the rebuilding. And third, because there will be no place for them to go. Harsh, but there it is.

  • Excellent historical comparisons – although it may be important to note that of the 3 examples you’ve given, Galveston rebuilt itself and still suffered a decline as the nearby city of Houston dredged access to itself and became the leading Texas port.

    I guess the lesson is that a great city did rise from the storm that shattered Galveston…and surpassed its rebuilt neighbor.

  • Your point is well-taken, EagleSpeak. The position of New Orleans, on the other hand, is unique. There’s only one mouth of the Mississippi. Other ports may take up some of the slack for a time but that competitive advantage for the Port of New Orleans will remain.

  • Susan G Link

    Congratulations on a fascinating post. Very thought-provoking and enlightening. And kudos for being selected as the second best post of the week by the Watcher’s Council. I pretty much agree with your recommendations for actions to take and not take I too have noticed that all of the evacuees being interviewed on the radio have said they are not going back to New Orleans, and they will make a new life at their newfound homes. (They’re looking for jobs, being helped to find jobs, or have found jobs.)

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