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3 Cities That Used Natural Disasters to Revitalize Their Futures

Hit by tornadoes and earthquakes, Tuscaloosa, Ala.; Greensburg, Kan.; and San Francisco all learned how to turn local tragedy into a new and vibrant vision. Their lessons are a playbook for local officials dealing with disasters.

Then and now: A tornado leveled most of Greensburg, Kan., on May 4, 2007. It has since rebuilt as an environmentally friendly city.
Then and now: A tornado leveled most of Greensburg, Kan., on May 4, 2007. It has since rebuilt as an environmentally friendly city.
By 5:30 p.m. on April 27, 2011, Tuscaloosa, Ala., 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.

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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.

Tuscaloosa, 5:13 p.m. on April 27, 2011

The tornado that hit Tuscaloosa in 2011 destroyed more than 12 percent of the city. (Photo: AP)

An EF4 tornado ripped through downtown Tuscaloosa, its 190-mph winds leaving a diagonal scar across the city of 90,000. The tornado’s path is still visible in satellite imagery. But now, there’s an optimism fueled by the beginnings of an economic recovery that city officials see as leading to a better, more modern Tuscaloosa.

Maddox credits an ample reserve fund for Tuscaloosa’s ability to get down to the business of cleaning up. Within 24 hours, $5 million had been approved for spending, with another $5 million approved a few weeks later. That allowed the city to look forward. “Not one time did we have to say, ‘How are we going to afford this?’” Maddox says. “We never had any of those concerns -- that is why you have reserves.”

That helped clear the way for city officials to address the important question: How to put the city blocks back together? That’s when it became apparent that the center of destruction at 15th Street and McFarland Boulevard offered a new opportunity for this mostly suburban city. A large section of what was destroyed was rental housing -- a mix of low-income, public and University of Alabama off-campus apartments. The students were able to find other housing, leaving only the need to rebuild units for low-income residents who had been displaced -- and not much demand for anything else. Here was a chance to create a new, more urban showcase for the city.

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“We wanted to build it back to where they’re proud of living there, and give businesses incentives to build in that area,” says Savannah Howell, Tuscaloosa’s community development program manager.

That led to the Tuscaloosa Forward Generational Master Plan, which included rezoning a portion of the once mostly residential area to a mixed-use district that could create additional development opportunities. The higher-density plan had its fair share of detractors. Some residents wanted the city to move quickly and simply replace what was leveled. But Tuscaloosa used the lag time -- it was waiting on U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) rebuilding funds -- to build support for its new vision.


The Tuscaloosa Forward master plan, rendered above, proposes building back more densely, with a mix of residential and commercial properties. (Image: City of Tuscaloosa)

The message city leaders wanted to convey was that the plan would be community-driven. More than 3,000 people attended meetings, and the plan’s website logged 70,000 hits. “It was a ground-up process where the people of Tuscaloosa said, ‘This is what we want,’” Maddox says. A direct outcome is CityWalk, a planned 5.5-mile recreational trail. A memorial to the destruction, the trail roughly follows the path of the storm through business and residential areas.

Progress on rebuilding has been slow, thanks largely to the slow flow of federal funds. It wasn’t until a year after the tornado struck that the city broke ground on Rosedale Park, a recreation area that will anchor CityWalk and is adjacent to the low-income Rosedale Court apartments that started construction in March 2012. “It takes months -- years -- to receive and first be able to invest [that funding],” Maddox says, adding that Tuscaloosa didn’t collect its first monies from HUD (a $16.6 million Community Development Block Grant) until last fall and just this spring the agency announced a second allotment of nearly $44 million for the city.

The first allotment is going toward housing projects like the Rosedale apartments and infrastructure improvements like Rosedale Park. Another part of the money is going toward a revolving loan fund, which actually happened by accident. Maddox says Tuscaloosa leaders didn’t effectively communicate with the business community about how the city would support their rebuild. So the local chamber of commerce created a business recovery committee, which developed the idea for a revolving loan fund that would grant interest-free loans of up to $200,000 to those willing to build in the tornado recovery zone. Businesses that apply for a loan must create or maintain low- to moderate-income jobs and begin their projects within 90 days of receiving the loan.

So far, more than half the fund has been loaned out. That aid, along with the new zoning district, is attracting a flurry of related economic activity. Construction of the $100 million Lofts of City Center, with ground floor retail, is well under way. New restaurants and retail shops have opened, as well as a bank, gym and oil change shop. As of March of this year, Tuscaloosa had issued 333 commercial building permits since the tornado, representing $142 million in new construction.

Key to the success, Maddox says, was identifying early on that the city will be rebuilt differently -- better -- than before, and it would address the concerns of citizens who want their city back as fast as possible.

Still, rebuilding according to a strategic plan takes more time. Just one year after the disaster, two University of Alabama history professors published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal criticizing Tuscaloosa Forward, saying it was delaying the recovery. They added that Joplin, Mo., following a tornado there in May 2011, was much further along because it had loosened regulations, allowing businesses to build back more quickly.

Maddox, who notes that the city’s outdated building codes and lack of a master plan slowed the initial build-back, says he received some good advice on staying the course from a fellow mayor who had been through similar devastation: “He said it’s better for them to be mad at you for two years, than to have them be mad at you for life.”

Greensburg, 9:45 p.m. on May 4, 2007


Then and now: A tornado leveled most of Greensburg, Kan., on May 4, 2007. It has since been rebuilt as an environmentally friendly city. (Photos: FEMA/Greg Henshall, Steve Zumwalt)

When an EF5 tornado cut through the center of Greensburg, Kan., it destroyed 95 percent of the roughly 1.5-square-mile town. Steve Hewitt, then-city administrator, recalls that one of his first concerns following the storm was whether the town would survive at all: Half of Greensburg’s 1,600 residents had suddenly found themselves homeless.

But what could have been the death of a town turned into its rebirth, largely because of an utterly unique plan to turn a farming town, once only famous for the world’s largest hand-dug well, into a world model for sustainable, environmentally friendly development. “If we’d lost one-quarter of the community, it might have been a different conversation,” Hewitt, now city manager of Clinton, Okla., recalls. “The thought was, if we don’t do something unique and different, we’re just going to be another community that was hit by a tornado and hardly ever recovered.”

Greensburg sought and won state and federal grants and congressional appropriation for development dollars. But to fully realize its vision, Greensburg had to put up its own money. It established a property tax incentive program for businesses that reopen or establish in the city and hew to a set of green building standards. Incentives that cut into a city’s potential revenue are a gamble. But in Greensburg’s case, says Hewitt, it was a gamble worth taking because of the message it sent to business owners. Greensburg also issued local bonds to fund projects, which required that local officials win the approval of their constituents. The residents had to be invested in the plan and believe in the city’s vision, Hewitt says. “To ever expect that you can rebuild a community with no debt or price tag to a community, it’s just not realistic.”

Today, six years after the town was decimated, Greensburg boasts the most LEED-certified buildings per capita in the U.S. All of its electricity comes from wind energy. The breadth of its vision to rebuild for the future has pulled the city and its residents together. In fact, the community was so invested in the idea that a local nonprofit was formed to raise money for a business incubator, which amassed $500,000 and today houses 10 businesses just two years after the tornado. A second incubator is opening this year.

“A lot of cities don’t have government support or the backing of the community to go into debt to rebuild,” Hewitt says. “You have to have everyone behind it.”

San Francisco, 5:04 p.m. on Oct. 17, 1989

Photo: AP

The 6.9-magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake shook up San Francisco and severely damaged its Embarcadero Freeway, a two-tier highway that cut off the city waterfront. Then-San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos opted to tear it down. He wanted the area to be more connected to the rest of the city. It was a contentious decision that Agnos speculates cost him his job -- he lost re-election in 1992.

Following the earthquake and for the remainder of his term, Agnos was up against Chinatown businesses that feared they would lose traffic without the freeway. He also had to deal with federal officials who wanted to do what the feds had always done: pay to replace the structure.

“It’s hard for people to think about a 20-year vision,” Agnos says today of the freeway, which was finally demolished in 1991. People whose lives have been disrupted by a disaster “just want to get back to normal. They want their houses back, their jobs back and all the things that are part of a comfortable life,” Agnos says. “And here I was adding to discomfort with a vision that said, ‘We’re going to knock this freeway down because it’s not safe and it’s ugly.’”

Agnos’ victory rested upon being able to convince federal officials that disaster funding should go toward tearing down the freeway, not restoring it. His 14 years with the California legislature -- first as a staff member then as an elected official -- gave him experience navigating state and federal agencies. And in post-disaster land, he says, “bureaucracy dominates.”

The mayor was able to convince officials at HUD that tearing down the Embarcadero would cost no more than retrofitting it. So, he argued, the agency should give San Francisco the money either way. To punch up its argument, the city hired its own consultants to assess the cost of retrofitting the freeway versus replacing it. “We kept haggling and haggling,” Agnos recalls, advising, “trust but verify their estimates. You go get your own estimates documented and take them to the negotiation. Don’t let the bureaucrats insist that your situation fit their rules. Make their rules fit your situation.”

Today, the waterfront where the Embarcadero once stood is a model of city planning, attracting billions of dollars in reinvestment and new development, including a Major League Baseball park.


After the 1989 earthquake, San Francisco opted to tear down the Embarcadero Freeway, opening up access to the waterfront. (Photo: Flickr/Kenneth Lu)

The Storm Ahead

Nearly one year after Superstorm Sandy tore through much of the Northeastern shoreline, officials in the states most devastated by the wreckage are experiencing firsthand the painfully slow process of obtaining federal funding and rebuilding. “The bureaucracy has been the biggest frustration,” says Amy Engel, executive director of the nonprofit Sustainable Long Island, which is involved in the city of Long Beach, N.Y.’s rebuilding effort. “It’s this horrible dance between the insurance companies and the federal government.”

This is where graduates of similar disasters advise their fellow disaster club inductees not to let the time lag go to waste. “Don’t put things back the way they were automatically,” says Agnos. “There may be a better way.”

The decision to rebuild differently must be made early on because it takes time -- months and even years -- to identify and establish the right funding path. As the Brookings Institution’s Patrick Sabol notes, anything beyond simply handing out federal dollars requires a more complicated financial structure. “These aren’t grant programs; these are loan programs,” says Sabol, a financing expert in Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program. “You need more savvy to operate these things.”

But the main piece of advice from disaster-club leaders is a simple one: As Greensburg’s Hewitt puts it, “You can’t be afraid of making the decision, but you have to be transparent -- explain the plan, involve the community, involve experts and consultants. It can be done. But you’ve got to stay focused.”

Liz Farmer, a former Governing staff writer covering fiscal policy, helps lead the Pew Charitable Trusts’ state fiscal health project’s Fiscal 50 online resource.
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