Natural disasters may cripple cities but they galvanize communities
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Cities are particularly vulnerable to disasters. Every time we build homes, shops or roads we are adding risk to the environment. Sometimes we mitigate that risk by building homes according to strict codes to withstand hurricanes or earthquakes or by setting structures back from a flood plain.

But preparing for the risk that comes with a disaster runs counter to our cultural and economic impulses to build, grow and generate new tax revenues from real estate development. 

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Urban floods are particularly dangerous. They are often slow to build and slow to dissipate in the urban landscape. Water moves in predictable but often unexpected ways, crippling services in ways that can have long-lasting effects even for those far outside the flood zone.

 

In the 1910 Paris flood which I studied, water traveled through subway tunnels to reach parts of the city hundreds of yards from the river where no one thought it could go. High water shut down the central hospital laundry depriving facilities of necessary resources for caring for the sick. A vinegar factory exploded due to water mixing volatile chemicals, shocking everyone.

It seemed that the water knew no bounds.

Paris had added risk into the environment by growing rapidly at the turn of the twentieth century, but it had not anticipated the risk of a worst-case scenario flood.

Houston is now experiencing a catastrophic failure of its urban space because, even more than Paris, it is a high-risk city. Low-lying and sprawling, Houston’s rapid and largely unzoned development has added thousands of square miles of non-porous concrete onto the land enabling water to travel and collect. Along the way, it increased the risk at every step. Like Paris over a century ago, Houston residents are finding water in unexpected places affecting the interconnected urban space. 

With climate change increasing the risk of normalizing extreme weather, other cities will need to handle such risk in the future. But if we continue to build cities in high-risk zones, how can we survive disasters? 

One answer is to restore the ecosystem to a more natural state since nature is often more capable of dealing with disastrous events than human structures. We’ve learned, for example, that restoring wetlands along coastlines prone to hurricanes is a good way to prevent storm surge. But even when we do so, water will continue to penetrate the built environment.

If cities are part of the problem, they may also be part of the solution. Cities bring people together in complex social networks which, when activated, can help save lives.

In the Paris flood, residents turned to one another for help, often across lines of wealth, religious difference, and political party. Shop owners put tables out in the street for pedestrians to cross flooded areas. Churches opened their doors to those who had lost their homes. Workers hoisted well-dressed wealthy women on their backs lifting them to safety. Fishermen rowed through the streets alongside the military and police carrying people to safety. Ladders reached up to neighbors apartments to bring comfort. 

Keeping communities strong so that we can reactivate the spirit of togetherness will prove to be an important step in anticipating the next disaster. Houston has seen what happens after every disaster: a surge of volunteerism and neighbors helping one another. Social media is only enhancing the ability of people to connect, even with perfect strangers, to find the sense of togetherness in the midst of the storm. Since we can’t rebuild our cities from scratch, strengthening our community ties may become the best way to mitigate risk in the cities we’ve already built.

Jeffrey H. Jackson is the chairman of the Department of History at Rhodes College, and an associate professor of history. Jackson is also the J.J. McComb chairman of History and interim chairman of the Environmental Studies and Sciences Program. Jackson is the author of the 2011 book “Paris Under Water: How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910.”


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