Disasters give cities chance to come back better

By Charles Anderson, Daniel Breece, Tom Dart, Rashmee Roshan Lal  /  The Guardian

Wed, Feb 05, 2014 - Page 9

When the Earth has stopped shaking and the waters have receded, when the wind has blown out and the bodies have been taken to the makeshift morgue (for natural disaster morgues are always makeshift), what then? Where does one start? How does one rebuild a city?

Do you rebuild at all, or start from scratch? Do you move the entire urban center? Can you? Do you knock up something quick — bearing in mind the urgent need — or something lasting, bearing in mind the mistakes of the past? Do you consider the catastrophic event that brought you to the brink, or chalk it up as a once-in-1,000-years event? Who decides what to reconstruct, where, when and in what order? A single top-down unit or myriad grassroots locals?

The past decade has witnessed a grim succession of cities brought to the brink by water, wind, earth and fire, or combinations of these. These writers have spent time in six of them — New Orleans in Louisiana, Japan’s Ishinomaki, Port-au-Prince in Haiti, Indonesia’s Banda Aceh, Christchurch in New Zealand and Galle, Sri Lanka — to investigate how cities are reinvented after disaster strikes.

Experts talk of “building back better,” of “resilience” and “sustainability,” of crisis being opportunity in the way that it was for the devastated cities of Germany and Japan in 1945.

However, as these writers have found out, the practice can be very different: piecemeal, dilatory, bureaucratic, venal even. It seems that urban planners never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, but just occasionally, they reimagine something really rather remarkable: a new idea of what cities should be in a century in which as many as three-quarters of the world’s population will become urban creatures.

Evan Smith, a resident of Christchurch whose house was basically written off by the 2011 earthquake, said that “one thing the earthquake taught us is that you can’t always rely on central services to survive. You have to rely on things within walking distance, without a car or a laptop. If you build with that in mind, you build in a lot of resilience. Very few have the opportunity to do that retrospectively. It’s the one shot and we have to get it right.”


By Kate Lamb

In the center of this Indonesian city, the reconstruction has been so transformative it is hard to believe that the deadliest tsunami in history ripped through it nine years ago, killing 221,000 people in Aceh Province alone and leaving more than 500,000 displaced.

Yet in the neighborhood where the tsunami hit land, where each house built with aid money is a beige replica of the next, markers are more prevalent. In one street, a 2.5 tonne barge still rests atop the skeleton of two houses.

The reconstruction task was mammoth, underpinned by US$651 billion in aid and headed by Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, a well-respected figure in Indonesian politics. As the director of the Aceh-Nias Reconstruction Agency, Mangkusubroto delivered a plan in the first three months and coordinated more than 500 agencies from the cleanup to large-scale infrastructure projects.

Across Aceh Province, more than 140,000 houses, 1,700 schools, almost 1,000 government buildings, 36 airports and seaports and 3,700km of road were finished by the end of 2010 — a year after the agency’s mandate had finished.

The idea of “building back better” has been implemented and Banda Aceh is now far superior post-tsunami. Most noticeably, it has what many Indonesian cities lack: smooth, wide roads, waste bins on sidewalks, and modern waste management and drainage systems.

Yet the approach saw projects stalled for months, even years. Consulting communities about basic decisions — such as whether survivors wanted clinics, wide escape roads and even drainage in their villages — was a time-consuming process and on closer inspection, there was a major miscalculation of local needs.

“Aid organizations were under pressure to spend the money,” World Bank operations analyst Muslahuddin Daud said, reeling off a list of empty facilities across the province.

Along the US$250 billion USAid-built road from Banda Aceh to Calang — another town practically destroyed in 2004 — an abandoned university and water treatment plant come into view, along with hundreds of abandoned houses, a common sight across Banda Aceh.

Daud said that a cash-for-work scheme in which people were given money to clean up the rubble and rebuild their houses “destroyed the Acehnese social structure” and undermined the Indonesian concept of gotong royong (communal work). Instead of people helping their neighbors willingly, Daud said the money has made people reluctant to help their neighbors unless they get cash in return.


By Daniel Breece

Outside Colombo, most Sri Lankan housing comprises simple one-story houses made out of concrete or concrete bricks with tile or tin roofing. An estimated 12,000 of these houses were demolished or severely damaged by the 2004 tsunami in the Galle district alone.

International aid flooded in — locals called it “the second wave” — but the Sri Lankan authorities’ first task was to decide where to rebuild.

Initially, the government banned new buildings within 100m of the ocean, but the buffer zone was problematic and people eventually made their way back toward the shoreline. In some cases, they are back on the beach, particularly where tourism is involved.

Rebuilding took five years, and used materials and construction techniques that were more or less the same as before the tsunami hit. Some houses were relocated and, in rare cases, two-story homes were built in their stead, with the second floor as a safe place to seek shelter in the event of another tsunami.

There were problems along the way: Competing for attention and housing became a tangible way for non-governmental organizations and others to show donors they were making a difference.

“Sri Lankan houses are traditionally built with religious traditions similar to those of feng shui. In many cases no respect was taken to these local customs and important cultural aspects; the knowledge about these issues was simply not present, nor was it given any time. In a way, you could say that the construction was rushed.”

In addition to restoring the infrastructure, the Sri Lankan government was supposed to give economic help to affected families. Transparency International says that of the US$2.2 billion received by the Sri Lankan government, US$60 million was spent on projects unrelated to the disaster and US$500 million went missing.

The government has yet to respond to these accusations.


By Tom Dart

More than eight years after Hurricane Katrina, the Lower Ninth — New Orleans’ worst-hit ward — offers a telling snapshot of the city’s recovery efforts. No longer resembling the flattened aftermath of a hurricane, it appears merely to have been hit by a one-off tornado, with normal-looking houses abutting ruins as if nature had sliced a serpentine path through the 518 hectare patch of land 10 minutes’ drive east of the French Quarter.

Across the city, 134,000 housing units were damaged, but the recovery effort has been fragmented, giving the impression there is no master plan. In the wake of the 2005 flood, money surged into New Orleans. The US Federal Emergency Management Agency provided nearly US$20 billion to help Louisiana recover from Katrina and Rita, the hurricane that hit the city a month later. The levees and floodwalls have been rebuilt at a cost of US$14.5 billion, while the state’s Road Home program claims to have channeled about US$9 billion to more than 130,000 residents.

However, Road Home was beset by administrative problems and was the subject of a discrimination lawsuit settled in 2011 because, typically, it handed out grants based on a home’s pre-Katrina worth, rather than the cost of fixing damage. This was advantageous to people who lived in more expensive, white areas.

“Eight years is a long time,” 63-year-old Errol Joseph said as he gazed at what remains of his home on Forstall Street in the most barren part of the Ninth Ward.

He has lived here most of his life, in a house that is presently a carapace of interlocking wooden beams, with an oddly neat pyramid of rubble in the front yard.

Of course, not everyone came back. The population of New Orleans slumped from 485,000 in 2000 to an estimated 230,000 residents 11 months after Katrina, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. However, by July 2012, it was back up to 369,000.


By Charles Anderson

The new Christchurch, which is being marketed as “greener, more compact, more accessible and safer,” will cost in the region of NZ$40 billion (US$32.6 billion) — almost 20 percent of New Zealand’s GDP.

Straight after the 2011 earthquake, the government’s response was to establish a single body, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) to be solely responsible for the project, from the demolition of commercial buildings and homes, to planning the next phase of rebuilding.

“If you look around the world at cities which have experienced disasters, it is single-purpose organizations that are the most efficient,” CERA chief executive Roger Sutton said.

In the early period, almost 8,000 of the area’s 180,000 homes were “red zoned,” meaning that the land they were on was so badly damaged that it was unlikely it could ever be rebuilt on. A further 9,100 properties were reckoned to be uninhabitable because they required such major repairs. From June 2010 to June 2012, the population of the Greater Christchurch area fell by 9,200, or 2 percent.

Yet there have been protests over the way CERA has handled the red zoning of residential areas.

In November last year, some homeowners in the hills were warned that their properties were too dangerous to inhabit, after being told the contrary for more than a year. Before the earthquakes, the city center’s retail areas were not competing well with suburban malls.

“It was clear [that] the rebuild following the 2011 earthquake provided a great opportunity to make Christchurch better than it ever was,” CERA executive Don Miskell said.

Yet some have questioned parts of that vision. While building codes have been changed to include height restrictions, there was no legislation to enforce building “greener.”

Mark Solomon, head of local Maori tribe Ngai Tahu, said that the rebuild has not put enough emphasis on sustainability.

“It was certainly one of my visions that we would adopt full green technology across the city,” he told a panel discussion. “But if you go through the subdivisions — including our own — it’s the same old.”


By Rashmee Roshan Lall

Four years after the earthquake that destroyed or damaged almost 300,000 buildings, Port-au-Prince is still an eyesore. The occasional buckled wall and cracked building stand limp and ghostly in most neighborhoods, serving as an untenanted reminder of the disaster. Up the steep mountainsides of the city stand hundreds of flimsy structures composed of USAid plastic sheeting and grain sacks, the letters and logo faded.

As of October last year, according to the International Organization for Migration, 171,974 people were living in these lean-to structures, down from 1.5 million.

“If you were here right after the quake, you would know the difference between the city then and as it is now,” said Harry Adam, the engineer-architect who heads the Unite de Construction de Logements et de Batiments Publics. “The change is incredible.”

Adam has a formidable three-pronged job: moving everyone out of the tents; formulating an institutional response to the lodging issue; and rebuilding public structures. He said that all the new construction is earthquake-proof, which adds 30 percent to the tab.

Adam ticks off projects under way, including a scheme to build eight ministries — 40 public buildings were destroyed — along the main Rue Champs de Mars downtown. Before the buildings can go up, the street will have to be widened to reflect its projected grandeur as the heart of government.

A resettlement scheme that offers a year’s free rent for people living in tents has been criticized as a short-term solution, given the problems that resettled people may face with paying the rent once the year has elapsed.

Part of the problem is that houses were scarce in Port-au-Prince even before the quake.

“The quake didn’t cause the slums and the squatters. It merely brought the problem to everyone’s attention,” said Maarten Boute, a Belgian businessman who has lived in Haiti for five years.


By Justin McCurry

Viewed from a nearby hilltop, the full extent of the destruction wrought by the March 2011 tsunami on Ishinomaki, in Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture, becomes apparent. The city center is no more and all that is left is a swath of flat land, reduced to rubble.

More than 4 million tonnes of debris left in the tsunami’s wake have been removed. Reaching 20m in places, the waves destroyed or damaged more than 50,000 buildings. Rebuilding the city, the worst affected of the tsunami-hit communities, will take at least 10 years and cost more than ¥1 trillion (US$9.9 billion). The process will begin with repairs to the shattered port, sea walls, roads, bridges and other infrastructure. About ¥100 billion has been earmarked for public housing and another ¥120 billion to relocate 15,000 residents in temporary housing.

The scale of the task facing Ishinomaki’s planners becomes apparent as Kenichi Horiuchi spread out a map detailing the revival plan. Horiuchi, deputy head in the reconstruction division of the Ishinomaki Government, points to a long strip of land that was once home to about 7,500 people near the sea that has been condemned as too dangerous to rebuild on. Inland are areas where new houses have been built for a small proportion of the thousands left homeless.

“Many of the people who lost their homes were living near the coast and along the river tributary,” he said. “They can’t move back to the same place, so now we have the problem of deciding where to put them.”

The city hopes to have 4,000 new homes ready by March 2016, but at the end of last year, only about 150 had been completed, of which about 100 were occupied. Horiuchi says that the slow pace of reconstruction, coupled with a fear of future tsunamis, means that some residents will never return.