Stairs, which are all that remain where a house once stood, are pictured in Waveland, Mississippi, August 26, 2015.
Stairs, which are all that remain where a house once stood, are pictured in Waveland, Mississippi, August 26, 2015. 
Jonathan Bachman / Reuters

British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill is credited for having once said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” This saying can carry both positive and negative connotations: If Churchill said it (it cannot be found in his recorded speeches, personal notes, or his books), he was probably using it in a wartime context, such as the Battle of Dunkirk. But when then–Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel said it in 2008, he added an explanatory extension, “What I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you could not do before.” Neither Churchill nor Emanuel were talking about natural disasters, but they very well could have been.

Indeed, the optimism that great good can come in the aftermath of disaster—whether it is natural, military, financial, or otherwise is universal, deeply held, and has deep roots. Almost every mayor, governor, senator and president has said something to the eaffect that a better city will arise from the ruins of disaster. Disasters are spoken of as providential events—opportunities for civilizations to start over with a clean slate, to correct mistakes, and to make changes that do not often avail themselves otherwise. What actually happens in the wake of disasters, however, is not as straightforward as this positive rhetoric might appear.


The most commonly cited example of great good following from disaster is that of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Following the quake was a tsunami and fire that ravaged the city on the morning of All Saints Day. Left to pick up the morale and civil rebuilding responsibilities was the Marquis de Pombal. When asked what to do by the King of Portugal, the man who would become Marquis famously said, “Bury the dead and feed the living.” Jesuit priests held great influence over the Portuguese monarchy, and advocated for a week of prayer. The young Portuguese king, Joseph I, was uninterested in this solution, opting to follow Pombal’s advice instead, and he handed him with the authority to rebuild Lisbon.

As the immediate aftereffects of the disaster abated, it became time to build the city anew, but the question was and how best to do it. Like almost all European cities of that period, Lisbon had grown into a chaotic mess of narrow, winding, unpaved streets and sewerless, unnumbered buildings. Getting from one point of the city to another was a challenge in itself, and conducting commerce even more so. Pombal argued that rebuilding the city as it was before the disaster made little sense, despite cries from those who advocated this very idea. Pombal saw that amidst this disaster was an opportunity to do something big—to build a city that was more efficient and streamlined than before. Even if this vision required looking past the rubble.

Pombal began by razing what little remained of the city, including his own home. The new city would employ a rectilinear grid plan of streets with wide boulevards, market squares, uniform housing styles, and many wonderful innovations such as below-ground sewerage that went on to be copied elsewhere in Europe and the Americas. Lisbon no doubt looked like a better city; commerce thrived, and the city became a major hub of the Enlightenment. 

Who benefitted most from this new city, however, was less straightforward. The Marquis has been both revered and reviled for his efforts, and has even been described as a despot. His design for Lisbon was far from egalitarian: the city was rebuilt to favor the bourgeois merchant class. The Jesuits, whom Pombal hated due to their influence and opposition to his plans, were expelled. The Marquis also reduced Portugal’s dependence on England as a trading partner, fulfilling one of his a long-term goals. And throughout this plan, the needs of the poor rarely factored in. The underclass could not contribute to the new Lisbon, and so they were banished to the periphery of the city.

The post-earthquake plan for San Francisco by Daniel Burnham and William Bennett, published 1906.
The post-earthquake plan for San Francisco by Daniel Burnham and William Bennett, published 1906.


These sorts of despotic powers may be necessary to execute mass urban makeovers. Master builder Georges-Eugene Haussmann rebuilt Napoleonic Paris, and a hundred years later, urban planner Robert Moses transformed New York. Despite their chronological disparities, both men held immense power and autonomy over the future of their respective cities. Neither had a disaster that cleared the slate for them—Haussmann used military cannons for demolition, and Moses used bulldozers. But like Pombal, both have been praised and pilloried in equal measure. And to this day, the poorest Parisians and New Yorkers still reel from their marginalization as cities built up and out. Like Pombal, Haussmann moved Paris’ poorest to the periphery. Moses moved them into housing projects.

Civic improvement doesn’t always have to breed inequality, however. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 provide contrasting narratives. The San Francisco earthquake set fire to the entire mission district and killed 3,000 people before the disaster abated. The Great Kanto Earthquake was accompanied by a typhoon—the only historically recorded case of such double destruction—and destroyed 45 percent of Tokyo and 90 percent of Yokohama, killing well over 100,000 people in its wake. In both San Francisco and Tokyo, the slate was wiped almost as clean as it was in Lisbon in 1755. And in these cities as well, an elite group saw the opportunity to rebuild these cities in a more modern, grand, and efficient way—including wide boulevards and monumental architecture to elevate the morale of the citizenry, just as Pombal had done in Lisbon.

These grand plans for heroic and moral reconstruction never happened, however. The enormous cost of the proposed projects was a stumbling block in both cases. Portugal was able to pay for Lisbon’s reconstruction based on its discovery of gold in Brazil. But in Tokyo and San Francisco, business owners had no interest in waiting while elaborate plans were drawn up for grand makeovers that could take decades to complete. Many also knew that financing grand reconstructions would likely cause taxes to rise on businesses when they could afford it the least.

In San Francisco, for example, there was a plan already on the shelves waiting for the right moment to be rolled out. The Burnham Plan would have brought grandeur to a rebuilt San Francisco through functional districts, tree-lined boulevards, and scattered parks throughout the city. But there was no central figure that could make the plan a reality, so business interests trumped civic planning. Almost exactly the same scenario played out in Tokyo.  San Francisco and Tokyo were rebuilt with little demonstrable improvement for most people: each city’s upper classes were unscathed, business thrived, the poorest remained poor, albeit dislocated from their former homes and less likely to find employment. And to this day, both cities still have street layouts with bizarre intersections and random sections of development, much as they did at the first part of the last century. 

Surely it is always better to try to build a better city from the ruins of one destroyed by disaster.  But history seems to be telling us there is no right way to do this, if “right” means a way in which all those who were impacted benefit from the new, even with the best intentions, though good intentions seem not to be the prime driver of reconstruction.  


It is frustratingly difficult to prove that natural disasters do serious long-term economic harm. The short-term harm is very obvious. There is even some evidence to the contrary—that disasters might be good for cities in the long term. Support for the benevolence of disasters draws on an informal extrapolation of the famed Harvard economist Joseph Schumpeter. Although Schumpeter did not write about disasters, his thesis did state that the creation of new businesses and technologies required old ones to be destroyed. This gale of creative destruction, Schumpeter believed, was an essential fact of capitalism. Applied to natural disasters, the theory goes that that critical but fragile and inefficient infrastructure that supports economic growth will be preferentially destroyed in nature’s paroxysms. These older, sclerotic systems would then be replaced by much newer (and hence, better) infrastructure, forcing a desirable technology upgrade that should lead to greater productivity, at least if we follow neo-classical economic growth theory. 

Residents rest on a sidewalk after an earthquake struck off the Pacific coast, in Portoviejo, Ecuador, April 17, 2016.
Residents rest on a sidewalk after an earthquake struck off the Pacific coast, in Portoviejo, Ecuador, April 17, 2016. 
Henry Romero / Reuters
This theory may happen in a few instances, but it rarely holds up. Society’s wealthiest citizens are usually the first to hear about an approaching storm. They rely less on evacuation orders given by local government authorities that have rarely been reliable on other matters, and more on their own assessment of the dangers. Although they often have more valuable property to lose, they are also typically better educated than the poor, and are able to recover more quickly. The rich are better connected to experts, many of which are likely to be in their own social class. Moreover, the rich can better afford to protect their homes and leave for a few days, often to stay in a hotel or with relatives out of harm’s way. And in most cases, their homes are insured against storm damage. For them, a storm is mostly a nuisance—more an inconvenience than a disaster, as Superstorm Sandy proved true for New Yorkers, and Hurricane Katrina demonstrated for New Orleans’ wealthiest citizens.

But for the poor in New Orleans, Katrina—a word that has entered our lexicon to signify more than the name of a hurricane in 2005—was an unmitigated disaster. The poorest parts of the city suffered the most, and not due to random circumstance. Most of the levees that failed after Katrina’s storm surge were structures that held back the waters of man-made shipping canals, which in turn cut through the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Those put at risk by the very presence of these canals gained nothing from them in return. Living in the shadow of poverty is hard enough, but living in the shadow of a levee has proven fatal.

When the waters finally drained from New Orleans’ streets, the opportunity to rebuild the city presented itself. And for the rich, Schumpeter’s gale was but a gentle breeze that brought with it an opportunity to make a beautiful city even more attractive. A major part of this rebuilding was the Bring New Orleans Back commission (BNOB). The plans, however, did not call for new wide boulevards, new market squares, or grand architectural undertakings as has been seen in Lisbon ages ago. New Orleans’ wealthy sections would remain just as they were, and the French Quarter would remain untouched. The plan called for the virtual abandonment of the poorer parts of New Orleans, many of which sat along flood zones. And for their part, scientists agreed, criticizing anyone who could be so foolish as to live below sea level, as if many had a choice. A better use of those place would be parks, recreation areas, golf courses and the like where no one lived.  And, of course, returning areas to nature gets strong support from scientists too.  Katrina had handily cleared the slums, and city leaders were not about to let them return. BNOB became a tool used to continue clearing the slums and rebuild a city that conveniently neglected to plan for the poor. The former mayor of New Orleans called BNOB “a red lining exercise wrapped up in a land grab.”  As it wasn’t wealthy people’s land that was being earmarked for these projects. And some 11 years out, New Orleans is a more livable city—even if is now much smaller and gentrified. Average incomes are higher, but largely due to 100,000 poor people being removed from the census. In the Crescent City, Schumpeter’s gale did not fill the sails of the poor—it capsized their fragile craft. 


A similar story plays out in nearly every city that experiences a wide-scale disaster. There is always an elite group that seizes the opportunity to build a city in their own image (or, at the very least, to maintain a city if its commerce hubs escape unscathed). For them, disaster provides opportunity for profit, and a chance to clean up social disorder in a way that solidifies their own status. There is always a vast divide between a small powerful elite and the powerless; that divide enlarges in the long coda of a disaster.

The formula for determining just how the upper class capitalizes on disaster is simple enough. Those used to managing capital jump on the chance to turn aid money into profit-generating projects. This, in turn, creates improvements that cater to their own class. Those who have no experience managing capital have to wait for others to manage it for them. And in most cases, the wait never ends.  The end result is an exacerbation of inequalities that existed before the disaster struck.  

There is, however, a way out of this cycle. First, we must recognize that a disaster is an extended process, not just an extreme natural event. A region’s governance will determine just how bad the impact of a natural disaster is felt, and whether or not a man-made disaster is to follow in its wake. Indeed, disasters are often not over once the wind stops blowing or the Earth stops shaking—or even after the media has left and the tent camps are emptied. After the physical damage has been wrought, the social damage begins. Unlike post-conflict reconstruction or post recession planning, we pay far too little attention to the post-disaster period. A major step forward would be to make this period of time the subject of research, giving at least as much weight to it as to recovery from other crises.

We must also pay careful attention to what goes on in real post-disaster periods. Today, we do little more than threaten to withhold relief money if we don’t like how a region’s government is working to recover from a natural disaster. This amounts to economic sanctions that could not come at a worse time—sanctions also end up hurting the poorest more than any other group. If a plausible plan can be constructed to make things better for all people, it should be embraced and supported by the international community.  Benchmarks for reconstruction must include social equity benchmarks as well as rubble removal. Although leaders thus far have failed to make sure that all citizens benefit from the disruptive opportunities that come from natural disasters, this does not always need to be the case. 

CORRECTION APPENDED (March 22, 2017): An earlier version of this article misstated Rahm Emmanuel’s position in 2008: he was a congressional representative from Illinois, not the governor of the state.

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