American cities have been assailed by fire and flood and earthquake and hurricanes, seen thousands dead and hundreds of thousands more turned into evacuees. But so far, no natural disaster has snapped a major city's spine, no matter how impractical its location or difficult its demographics.
The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 was, like the catastrophe of New Orleans, the worst and most expensive natural disaster in the nation's history when it happened. On April 18 of that year, a major quake and subsequent fires killed more than 3,000 people, leveled almost the entire city, and left more than half the population of 400,000 homeless.
Thousands of victims took boats across the bay to a little town called Oakland. They never left, and Oakland became a big city. Others headed south, helping a town called Los Angeles boom. And many moved right back, using new technology to build stronger buildings. Buttressed by the westward push of millions of Americans, today it is one of the nation's most beautiful, expensive and desirable places to live.
"You're going to see a huge reconstruction effort" in New Orleans, says Philip L. Fradkin, author of "The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself." But after it is rebuilt, the Crescent City may be as vulnerable as before, Fradkin argues. He says San Francisco, with its high-rises built on land reclaimed from the bay, is more in danger than ever.
Last week, with violence and explosions and swampy water covering New Orleans, there was much despair that the freewheeling Big Easy, the sex and sin and jazz capital, may never really return. Dennis Hastert, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, suggested that a city below sea level, wedged between a huge lake and one of the world's mightiest rivers, should not get federal funds to rebuild.
"It doesn't make sense to me," Hastert, an Illinois Republican, told the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Ill.
But U.S. history, and the nation's cultural mythology, is of a people who stand their ground and take their chances -- even amid devastation. San Francisco rebuilt. So did Chicago, which suffered a catastrophic fire in 1871. So did Galveston, Tex., after a 1900 hurricane killed more than 6,000. The city built a massive seawall and raised the entire elevation of the sandbar on which it sits -- though the storm knocked it out of the race with Houston to become the dominant Texas city on the Gulf.
"Some beautiful homes in New Orleans will never be rebuilt, some entire neighborhoods will just never be the same," says William Ferris, co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture and history professor at the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina. "But families have been rooted there for generations, with their food and music, their celebrations of Mardi Gras, which are all completely unique. It's part of the American psyche. It's impossible to imagine America without New Orleans."
If past is prologue, then Ferris is right, and America will keep its sensual port on the Gulf of Mexico, a city whose trademark cocktail will continue to be the hurricane. Natural disaster may lead to population shifts, restructuring of politics and income, and further stratifications of race and class, but big cities have always endured.
That's not to say things will automatically bounce back in the same way. Consider Hurricane Andrew.
One of only three documented Category 5 monsters to hit the United States, it wiped out much of South Florida on Aug. 24, 1992. Ten years later, researchers from the International Hurricane Research Center at Florida International University found that many middle-class white residents in Miami-Dade County had taken their insurance settlements and rebuilt their lives. By contrast, an impoverished, predominantly black area called Florida City never really recovered.
"The poor get poorer after disasters," says Nicole Dash, a sociologist affiliated with the research center. "They don't have the political power, they don't have the economic power to compete for the same resources that others do."
In New Orleans, nearly a third of its population of 485,000 lives below the poverty line. Beset by long-standing "white flight," the population shrank by more than 2 percent from 1990 to 2000. More than half the population are renters, rather than homeowners, a sign of tenuous ties to the area, ties that many may just abandon.
If the Saints, the city's football team, leave town, as the owners have hinted, and the Superdome never returns to its grandeur as host of the Sugar Bowl and Super Bowl and NCAA championship basketball games, the city would lose a great deal of its national cachet.
"This is a real moment in history when New Orleans will begin to change dramatically," says Craig Colten, who wrote "An Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans From Nature," which came out earlier this year. "The overall commercial significance of the city is going to erode further. I think you'll see the income disparity accentuated."
Or locked in place, as regional patterns may dictate, whether urban or rural.
In the most comparable regional disaster, the rain-swollen Mississippi River broke through the levee in Mound Landing, Miss., on April 21, 1927. Other breaks followed in Arkansas and Louisiana. Roaring waters turned regions of Mississippi and Arkansas into lakes and then poured through Louisiana in such waves that the levee was dynamited in spots to save New Orleans farther downriver. The flooding displaced more than 300,000 and killed more than 200. It triggered massive changes in levee management, in ways the nation's largest river was managed, and helped propel Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who oversaw the relief effort, into the White House.
But even though the Great Migration was underway -- the huge movement of blacks from the rural South to the urban North -- a flood of such epic proportions, even in the most predominantly black region of the country, did not significantly alter the social structure of so much as Greenville, Miss., much less the Jim Crow South.
"They didn't have white boats and black boats to pluck people out of trees and off rooftops," says Pete Daniel, a curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and author of "Deep'n as It Come," a history of that flood. "Anybody with a boat picked up anybody they saw. That lasted until they got to high ground. After the flood, everybody pretty much went back to the same old ways. Blacks couldn't get out of refugee camps until the owner of the plantation where they worked came to get them."
Today, three generations later, the Mississippi Delta has undergone tremendous social change -- but it is still the most predominantly black rural area in the nation, and its people the poorest.
In New Orleans, some storm evacuees will never return, and Shreveport, La., likely will gain new residents, from all income levels, as will Baton Rouge. But New Orleans is one of the world's busiest seaports, and has been the gateway of the Mississippi River, the commercial artery of the American heartland, since the Louisiana Purchase. Though its short-term future is certainly bleak, there's doubt that it's going to turn into a ghost town.
The lasting lesson, says Fradkin, the San Francisco author, is of American hubris, of how people grow attached to their cities, no matter the resident forces of nature.
As if to underscore this, he explains that he lives 40 miles north of San Francisco, where he can see a spot where the earth moved perhaps 20 feet during the 1906 earthquake. "The right earthquake at the right scale and the right place would send us down this little 100-foot hill into the bay."
But like the frontiersmen and gamblers who settled wildly impractical places such as San Francisco and New Orleans, he thinks the odds are in his favor.
"I'm talking to you now from my house that's perched on the edge of the San Andreas fault," he says. "It's a gorgeous place."