Rebuilding Urban Places after Disaster: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina

Rebuilding Urban Places after Disaster: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina

Rebuilding Urban Places after Disaster: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina

Rebuilding Urban Places after Disaster: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina


Disasters are part of the American experience in the 21st century. This volume examines the rebuilding of cities and their environs after a disaster and focuses on four major issues: making cities less vulnerable to disaster, reestablishing economic viability, responding to the permanent needs of the displaced, and recreating a sense of place.


Amy Gutmann

Hurricane Katrina was a wound.

“Wound” is a better word than “disaster,” which connotes a purely natural occurrence. “Wound” makes room for human agency. And when a wound is inflicted by human beings, so too, are women and men left with the task of its healing—or, to borrow Abraham Lincoln’s phrase, “to bind up our nation’s wounds.”

Hurricane Katrina was most obviously inflicted by nature, not by man. But was it solely a random, natural misfortune? Or were its effects also the product of human injustice? The Lisbon earthquake of 1755, as Judith Shklar has pointed out, was the first natural disaster after which such questions rose to the fore. At 9:20 a.m. on the morning of November 1, 1755, an earthquake, now believed to have equaled 9.0 on the Richter scale, struck the Portuguese capital. A devastating tsunami and fire followed. Some 90,000 people—a third of the city’s population—are estimated to have perished. Eighty-five percent of Lisbon’s buildings were destroyed. The catastrophe prompted intense debate and speculation in religious and intellectual circles across Europe. Was it a random act of nature? Was it a divine punishment? Or was the failure to plan for foreseeable tragedy a human crime?

“We shall find it difficult to discover,” Voltaire famously declared, “how could the laws of movement operate in such fearful disasters in the best of all possible worlds.” Surely, this could not be the work of a just, even if incomprehensible, God, Voltaire argued, but merely a random misfortune of impersonal nature. But it was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who recognized that if nature made the wound, it was human beings themselves who had held the knife. If the population had not been concentrated in such a small area and if the homes had not been built so many stories tall, the toll in physical and human loss would have been much less. The Lisbon disaster challenged both Catholic theology and Enlightenment rationalism, and in part through the early writings of Immanuel Kant, it spurred the earliest beginnings of a truly scientific seismology.

Now, in the twenty-first century, there is no doubt that Hurricane Katrina was not just a misfortune, but also an injustice. It was not purely a natural disaster, though it may appear so on its face. What if human beings had done the right thing in advance of Katrina? How dramatically different the outcome, and its aftermath, would have been! Of course, we mortals never completely do the right thing. But rarely have we so completely done the wrong thing.

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.