Rebuilding cities after disasters

The fire is out. The cleanup is under way. Federal emergency assistance is assured. The national spotlight that fell briefly on Lynn, Mass., late last month has shifted elsewhere, and now the city is left to try recovering from a spectacular blaze that destroyed much of its downtown.

As it does so, officials of other US cities that have experienced even greater calamities have a few words of advice: The rebuilding process may be slow and difficult, but Lynn should view the loss as an opportunity to make itself stronger and better than before.

The Lynn fire, which some officials think was set, wiped out 17 buildings in an area that was being redeveloped with local, state, and federal funds - part of a six-year, $195 million effort to pump new vitality into the old blue-collar city of 90,000 people that once was the center of the US shoe-manufacturing industry. More than 90 fire companies from two states responded to the 10-alarm blaze, which attracted considerable national television coverage. Local officials put the loss to the city economy as high as $70 million. Nearly 2,000 persons lost their homes or jobs.

Since then the incident the city has been tormented with seven more fires of varying seriousness - most of them labeled as arson in what one observer called ''a monkey-see, monkey-do mentality.'' Some $20,000 in rewards has been pledged for information leading to the arrest of arsonists in Lynn.

President Reagan declared Lynn a federal disaster area Dec. 3, opening the way to an unspecified amount of government aid. The declaration allows the federal government to provide temporary housing for homeless persons as well as grants and loans to people and businesses faced with expenses not covered by other relief organizations.

Not all of the government help will be immediate, however, and, while they wait, the people of Lynn should resist discouragement, say veterans of major disasters in other cities.

One of these is Philip Spelman, who was mayor of neighboring Chelsea, Mass., when a 1973 fire destroyed an 18-block area of that city at a cost of $100 million. Chelsea still has not completely recovered from that blaze. But there is new vitality in the city: Much of the burned-out area now is committed to new businesses, and there is a growing trend toward gentrification of its old housing stock.

Mr. Spelman, now a member of the Chelsea Police Department, says that Lynn can recover from its fire, but not by ''crying the blues'' or waiting for others to leap to its aid.

Spelman recommends: ''Sell Lynn - to its people. Let them know they live in a viable city. Motivate them to work for Lynn's progress. Sell the city to potential investors, especially outside firms. Utilize the private sector for consultants.''

At the same time, the former mayor says, Lynn officials should take advantage of federal and state programs that offer in-kind services and expertise.

Wichita Falls, Texas, was shattered by a 1979 tornado that took 46 lives and caused $600 million in property damage. But earlier this year it won an ''All-American city'' award for having rebuilt so quickly.

''I was quoted quite widely as saying it would take five to 10 years (to rebuild) - if we were lucky,'' says Kenneth Hill, mayor of Wichita Falls then and now. ''To my amazement, we did it in two.''

Mayor Hill says, ''It was spotty at times; there were complaints.'' But he adds, ''I have no criticism of anyone, at any level of government.''

The mayor acknowledges the city had some problems after the tornado with profiteers and others whose business practices were not always ethical. Ultimately these were checked by new ordinances requiring people wishing to do business in the city to post bonds.

''We don't talk about (the tornado) much anymore,'' Hill says. ''We're really better - from a physical standpoint. The people of Wichita Falls pulled together. They had the faith.''

Jody Cox, city editor of the Wichita Falls Times, recalls a brief emotional letdown in the city when relief funds were slow in arriving. But ''People here learned how to help each other,'' he says. ''They're self-reliant Texans, but they found out they can't stand alone. There were a lot of heroes.''

In 1974, Xenia, Ohio, was devastated by a tornado that wiped out one-quarter of the downtown area and 1,200 houses. Not only was the downtown in decline at the time, city officials admit, but 1974 was a year of deep economic recession.

Still, within a year and a half most of the houses were rebuilt. And now, seven years since the tornado, the reconstruction of downtown Xenia - with new sidewalks, curbs, gutters, and traffic signals - is called 90 percent complete.

''Other than the lives that were lost, we're probably in better shape than before,'' says Walter Marshall, who worked closely with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development on rebuilding the houses and later was elected mayor of Xenia. ''The town is more beautiful now.''

Bill Bright, the managing editor of the Xenia Gazette, wasn't working there in 1974 but has watched much of the rebuilding effort. ''Pride in recovering was a major factor,'' he says.

In the process, however, the character of Xenia has been altered from what Mr. Bright calls a ''hometown'' community with numerous small industries to that of bedroom community for nearby Dayton. ''It's a new town now, and people have to realize that,'' he says.

Dave Sparr is assistant city manager of Xenia, as he was then. He says: ''Expectations were very high. What we ended up with, however, is not what people expected when we began. It's impossible to rebuild the way things were. We had to rechannel thinking, and it took a while.''

Mr. Sparr says he would tell the people of Lynn: ''It may look bad now. It certainly looked bad here. But you have to see it as an opportunity. You can't bring the people back, but you can do new things with your downtown.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.