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 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 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 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.