5 U.S. Cities That Were Destroyed—and Completely Rebuilt

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As recovery efforts begin in areas ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, rebuilding may seem like an impossible task right now. But rebuilding will happen. We’ve talked about historic disasters like the Great Chicago Fire and the 1906 earthquake that devastated San Francisco. Let’s look at five other U.S. cities that bounced back after natural disasters.

1. Galveston, Texas

Galveston was briefly the capital city of the Republic of Texas and later one of the largest ports in the United States. But on September 8, 1900, a category 4 hurricane struck the booming “Wall Street of Texas,” killing thousands of residents, largely as a result of poor meteorological reporting and townspeople who dismissed evacuation warnings. The storm’s 15-foot surge washed out the entire island (which was only about 8 feet above sea level), destroying nearly 4000 homes, all bridges to the mainland, telegraph lines, most ships in the wharf and even rail lines as far as 6 miles inland.

Because the island was completely cut off from all communication with mainland Texas, it took two full days to send news to President McKinley that the city was in ruins. Messengers reported 500 dead and total loss of property, but the devastation was greater than initially suspected; in 2005 currency, damage from the 1900 Galveston Hurricane cost $99.4 billion and between 6000 and 12,000 lives—the second-costliest and most deadly natural disaster in U.S. history.

A single house stood along the beach after the 1900 hurricane. Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

By September 12, the city received its first mail delivery and relief supplies began trickling in. Survivors appropriated Army tents from the debris and set up temporary camps until reconstruction and transportation could begin again. Within three weeks, the port was once again shipping out supplies. An ambitious seawall project had been rejected a decade prior to the storm on the advice of Weather Bureau section director Irving Cline, who argued that any storm that traveled far enough into the Gulf of Mexico to hit Galveston would be too weak to seriously impair the city. The wall was constructed between 1902 and 1904, with additional segments added in the 30s through the 60s, and parts of the city were elevated by as much as 17 feet. Today, Galveston is home to nearly 50,000 residents and boasts the world’s skinniest park: the Galveston Seawall, at 30 feet wide and 10.4 miles long, serves as a scenic boardwalk and tourist attraction.

Flickr user Harrison Tran

2. Dayton, Ohio

Downtown Dayton, March 26, 1913, via Wikimedia Commons

March 1913 was a rough month for Dayton. A series of storms over Easter weekend saturated the city for three days and nights. When the ground couldn’t hold any more water and heavy rains continued, the runoff flowed into the Great Miami River and its three tributaries, which converge near the city’s business district. By the fourth night of rain, levees throughout the city began to fail and by 8 am on March 25, water was flowing through the streets. The flooding continued unabated for at least 18 hours; by the next morning, water stood 20 feet deep downtown and fires broke out after a gas explosion (and the resulting damage to gas lines) went unattended because the area was inaccessible. After the water receded and the damages were assessed, more than 360 people had died; 65,000 were displaced; 20,000 homes were destroyed by water and fire; and the property damage totaled about $2 billion (in current estimates).

A year later, much of the water damage had been repaired, but Dayton continued to struggle economically for another decade. The Miami Conservancy District was created to mitigate future disasters by designing a flood control system that could accommodate 140 percent of the water seen in the 1913 flood. A manufacturing boom during WWII resulted in overpopulation, which was alleviated by a rush to build emergency housing while suburban areas expanded, but though they were meant to be temporary, some of those houses are still occupied. The population continued to boom through the next four decades, but eventually declined as the city moved away from heavy manufacturing. Today, Dayton is the aerospace hub of Ohio and has been ranked in several lists as one of the most economically diverse cities in the country.

Dayton in 2007, via Wikimedia Commons

3. St. Louis, Missouri

St. Louis has the unfortunate distinction of being heavily damaged in multiple devastating tornadoes in our country’s history. If storms in all of the Greater St. Louis area are counted, the city has seen more than 100 tornadoes in the last 140 years. Two of these were particularly damaging to the area.

St. Louis in 1896, Wikimedia Commons

In 1896, the May 27 outbreak produced a number of tornadoes as a pair of supercell thunderstorms formed over Missouri. The first killed two people and caused widespread damage in rural areas. The second spawned the St. Louis-East St. Louis Tornado, which touched down in St. Louis then crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois, killing 255 people and causing $2.2 billion in property damage (today’s currency). It was the third deadliest tornado event in U.S. history.

St. Louis in 1927, usgennet.org

Just 31 years later, the city would find itself again in the path of a notably destructive storm, as the St. Louis Tornado Disaster killed 79 people and caused $1.8 billion dollars in damage (adjusted). Until the year 2000, these two tornadoes were the costliest in history.

Though it seems the city is almost constantly barraged by tornadic winds, people still live there; St. Louis is Missouri’s second-largest city, home to more than 300,000 people, three professional sports teams, and a healthy manufacturing and tourism economy.

MoDOT on Flickr

4. Anchorage, Alaska

Anchorage in 1964, U. S.Geological Survey Photo Library

In 1964, a 9.2-magnitude earthquake struck Prince William Sound. The 4-minute quake caused widespread damage in Alaska, tsunamis in Oregon, California, Hawaii, and Japan, and a massive underwater landslide that caused a tsunami and killed 30 people in Port Valdez. But Anchorage, 75 miles north of the epicenter, was hit the hardest. Landslides leveled entire neighborhoods and at least 30 city blocks downtown, and inadequately-built houses and buildings collapsed throughout the city as aftershocks continued to shift the ground. Damage to streets, sewage and electrical systems, water mains and railroads seemed insurmountable. Aftershocks would rattle the area thousands of times over the next few weeks, and for more than a year small trembles could be felt throughout the state. As a result of the Great Alaska (or Good Friday) Earthquake and the tsunamis it created, 131 people died in Alaska, Oregon and California, and the property damage would be something like $1.8 to 2.25 billion dollars today.

But Anchorage wasn’t going to let the second-largest earthquake in recorded history slow it down too much. Rebuilding efforts lasted through the remaining 1960s, and an oil boom in 1968 would help fund further growth. Through the 70s and 80s, the city grew and focused on beautification and expansion. In more recent years, along with the U.S. Geological Survey, the city has outfitted newly-built structures with motion sensors to better understand how seismic activity affects buildings, resulting in 24/7 monitoring in the United States’ most seismically active locations. (The Robert Atwood Building has 32 different sensors, making it one of the most closely monitored buildings in the country.) Today, Anchorage is home to 40 percent of Alaska’s residents and an integral part of modern earthquake research.

Anchorage in 2008, Wikimedia Commons

5. Greensburg, Kansas 2007

Greg Henshall / FEMA via Wikimedia Commons

In more recent years, the U.S. has seen a number of massive tornadoes, most too recent to accurately gauge the success of rebuilding efforts. But one exception is the teensy town of Greenburg, Kansas, which was decimated by an F5 tornado measuring more than a mile wide in May of 2007. The city, which wasn’t even as wide as the tornado, suffered total devastation. Ninety-five percent of the town was demolished by the storm, the remaining 5 percent severely damaged, and 11 of Greensburg’s 1500 residents died as a result of the storm’s 205-mph winds.

Following the disaster, Greensburg City Council voted to rebuild, but on one condition: all new city buildings must meet LEED platinum standards, the highest rating available for green design and construction. Since 2007, Greensburg has worked to recreate the town as an example of smart design and tourist destination. Attractions include the world’s largest hand-dug water well (shown below, with its new museum) and a 1000-pound meteorite; accommodations boast the world’s only (reported) hotel that runs on a wind generator. Though rebuilding is still underway and will take a number of years to complete, Greensburg’s “stronger, better, greener” campaign has put the little town back on the map.

Greensburg Big Well Museum, 2009, via City of Greensburg