The Monitor's View

Disasters like the Joplin tornado can also lead to reinvented communities

From post-Katrina New Orleans to tsunami-hit Japan, examples abound of using a crisis for blank-slate redesign after a tragedy.

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Tornado-whipped Joplin is barely done with the rescue-and-relief stages of its giant tragedy. But that Missouri city, which lost about a third of its buildings, even now can start to apply this lesson from a few other places ripped by natural disasters:

Rebuilding can also mean reinventing.

One model of renewal is Greensburg, Kan., a rural town almost demolished by a 2007 megatwister. The townspeople there decided not only to stay put and rebuild their small community, but also to “go green.” They invested heavily in renewable energy sources and constructed energy-efficient buildings.

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The town has became such a pioneer in ecoliving that it is now a tourist site. Gloom was replaced by greenness, rekindling a new sense of belonging.

In post-Katrina New Orleans, the hurricane’s destruction was used as an opportunity to revamp public education and rid the city of poor schools; more than half of students now attend charter schools and test scores are rising. And new types of inexpensive houses – called “Katrina cottages” – were invented while a push began to rehabilitate historic structures in sustainable ways. Special housing was provided for musicians as a way to retain the city’s cultural legacy.

New Orleans has experienced such creative renewal since 2005 that a book was published about it last December – “How to Rebuild a City: Field Guide from a Work in Progress” – in hopes of inspiring other cities that face a similar crisis.

Such a vision isn’t always easy in the aftermath of a disaster when simple things like housing the homeless or clearing the clutter of debris seem overwhelming. But communities that pull together for recovery can also come together to rethink their basic ways of doing things, drawing on resources they couldn’t imagine.

In Birmingham, Ala., for instance, which was hit by one of the tornadoes that ravaged the South on April 27, officials say they want to redesign the city to become a magnet for growth and not merely reconstruct the same type of structures. Otherwise, Birmingham may not reverse the economic decline it has been in since the 1960s.

That spirit of blank-slate thinking is difficult in places where hard-hit residents simply hope to rebuild homes and others flee for good. And if only a part of a community is destroyed, the rest may not go along with bold ideas.

In Japan, Prime Minister Naoto Kan faces a political fight in implementing his vision of remaking the small coastal communities destroyed by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. He wants to build solar and wind plants in the northeast where the disaster occurred. “We have to make new communities with greater dreams and more hope than they used to have,” he said in a Financial Times interview.

So much wooden debris remains in the area that Mr. Kan also proposes using it to justify building biomass power plants that can later rely on wood from nearby forests.

Japan also faces acute electricity shortages from its shuttered nuclear power plants. The prime minister wants the country to invest in more energy efficiency. Others say the country must restructure its economy to become more resilient to earthquakes, such as placing key manufacturing in many places rather than concentrating it in only a few areas.

Any number of ideas are possible to put more resiliency in a community after a tragedy. Americans in the tornado-prone Midwest and South, for example, can construct buildings better able to withstand superhigh winds or provide greater protection for residents.

When President Obama visits Joplin on Sunday, perhaps he can bring with him a similar spirit of renewal and resiliency. The future doesn’t mean only re-creating the past.

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