Mayor Walt Maddox knew he had become a member of a select club no city leader wants to join. Minutes earlier a mile-wide tornado had ripped a nearly 6-mile-long path through the center of the city, leveling a main commercial artery, hitting a major medical center and flattening vital city buildings.
In the following weeks, Maddox would get the final totals for the destruction: 5,362 homes impaired or demolished, 53 dead, and 1,200 injured. Twelve and a half percent of the city was destroyed. Seven thousand people were left homeless and thousands of jobs were lost. “And all this happened,” Maddox says, “in six minutes.”
Maddox’s fellow disaster-club members know what he’s talking about. Tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods and snowstorms can land with a harsh and terrible swiftness, killing people, wiping out roads and leveling businesses, hospitals and homes. It’s likely to get worse. Scientists who study meteorology warn that climate change will only increase the severity of some extreme weather events in the future, namely flooding, snowstorms and hurricanes.
While cities mourn their losses, they face the huge task of rebuilding and the frustrating wait for federal and state money to help with the effort. But some cities -- Tuscaloosa among them -- take on an additional challenge: They make a post-disaster leap from replacing to revitalizing.
Obviously, there’s little comfort in the devastation of a natural disaster, but essential to the idea is that in disaster there can be opportunity. Millions in federal, state and local disaster dollars can be leveraged into billions in additional investment from the private sector. That approach, however, takes more time, a lot of patience and a dose of creativity. Tuscaloosa; Greensburg, Kan.; and San Francisco all learned how to turn local tragedy into a new and vibrant vision. Their lessons on leveraging funds, dealing with local sentiment -- the longing to replace rather than remake -- are a playbook for local officials dealing with today’s disasters.
Whether it’s localities in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut that were pummeled last year by Hurricane Sandy and its wind-driven flooding, or tornado-alley cities like Moore, Okla., still reeling from the wreckage of this year’s storm season, these lessons hold suggestions for disasters of today and tomorrow, and for the next officials to join the disaster club.
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Via Chuck Sherwood, Senior Associate, TeleDimensions, Inc