The effort to rebuild

THE process of cleanup is under way in two areas of the United States that in recent days have gone through different but equally challenging experiences -- a hurricane along hundreds of miles of the Gulf Coast and a fire in Passaic, N.J. The hearts of Americans everywhere go out to the people in both regions, and in other areas who have had to deal with past calamities, from earthquake to forest fire. Yet there is something indomitable in mankind that refuses to buckle under so-called natural disasters: the impulse to rebuild and move forward again.

At the same time, it is unwise to build on flood plains and in other regions that are particularly vulnerable to the elements. In recent years far too much construction has taken place in such areas.

As major coastal hurricanes often do, this Gulf storm caused substantial property damage over a wide area. Yet it spotlighted anew the progress meteorologists have made over time in tracking a hurricane's path, and the greater attention and preparation that public and local officials now give to precautions.

More than 1 million people were evacuated along the coast from Sarasota, Fla., to New Orleans; fatalities were few.

But as this latest hurricane showed, meteorologists have made little progress thus far in forecasting a hurricane's track with any certainty. Such progress evidently depends either on heavy investment in current equipment, including oceangoing tracking stations, or the development of more-sophisticated technology better able to plot major wind currents.

The Passaic fire, in which arson is suspected, destroyed much of the downtown. It came as that industrial city was trying to deal with high unemployment and to reverse industrial decline.

In neither area will rebuilding be easy; yet people and communities elsewhere have come back from similar devastation. With the understanding and help of friends, and the support of the appropriate private and public agencies, the people of the Gulf Coast and Passaic will come back, too.

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