6 Cities That Rallied After Natural Disasters

Hurricane Katrina rescue efforts
Lower Ninth Ward residents shelter on their rooftops while waiting for rescue crews to arrive after Hurricane Katrina.

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Resilience is one of the reasons the human race continues to survive, and few things demonstrate that resilience more clearly than how we respond to natural disasters. Even when cities are leveled by nature’s fury, people band together and rebuild. Sometimes they recover to be become than ever before.

Here are six U.S. cities destroyed by natural disasters that have made a comeback.

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San Francisco, California

Ruins after San Francisco Earthquake

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At 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906, the San Andreas fault ruptured not far off the coast of San Francisco. The ensuing 7.9 magnitude earthquake lasted only about a minute, but it was enough to level a significant portion of the city almost immediately.

The quake, however, was only the start. Subsequent fires soon erupted throughout the city, eventually consuming nearly 500 city blocks and causing $400 million in property loss. By the time the fires petered out, San Francisco was left in ruins.

Rebuilding the city took time, but not as much time as you would think given the amount of destruction. By 1915, there was almost no visible damage left, and San Francisco hosted the Panama-Pacific International Exposition as a way to reopen the city to the world.

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Greensburg, Kansas

Kansas Tornado Aftermath

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On May 4, 2007, an EF5 tornado ripped through the city of Greensburg, Kansas. With an estimated width of 1.7 miles, the tornado was wider than the city itself. By the time the winds subsided, approximately 95 percent of the city had been leveled. The damage amounted to $250 million.

Faced with the daunting task of having to rebuild from almost nothing, the residents of Greensburg opted to reconstruct their city better than before. In fact, today the city's name is more apt than ever—Greensburg has rebuilt as a "green" city. It contains the most LEED platinum-certified green buildings per capita in the United States, and it is powered entirely by a 12.5-megawatt wind farm.

By making this effort, Greensburg has not only become a model for wide-scale use of renewable energy; they've also poetically taken the wind that once destroyed their city and harnessed it for something good.

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Johnstown, Pennsylvania

Train lies on its side in aftermath of a Johnstown Flood

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The Great Flood of 1889, widely considered to be one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, engulfed the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania after days of heavy rainfall caused the South Fork Dam to fail. As much as 20 million tons of water were unleashed upon the town—the same amount that goes over Niagara Falls in 36 minutes. Flood lines reached as high as 89 feet above river level.

Johnstown was devasted. The flood completely destroyed four square miles of the town, including 1,600 homes. It caused $17 million in property damage and, tragically, over 2,000 deaths.

Because Johnstown also succumbed to catastrophic floods in 1936 and 1997, the city's persistence to continuously rebuild is inspiring. Additionally, the disaster prompted the evolution of one of America's most heralded disaster relief organizations, the American Red Cross. The Johnstown Flood was the first peacetime disaster relief effort handled by the organization.

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Chicago, Ilinois

Aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire
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One of the worst urban fires in U.S. history, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 began in a barn and eventually grew to consume one-third of the city. By the time rainfall doused the fire after over 24 hours, 17,450 buildings were in ruins, 100,000 people were homeless, and the city was left with $200 million in damage.

Chicago saw the rebuilding effort as an opportunity for great industrial growth, but the road to get there wasn't straightforward. Businesses continued to use wood, not fireproof materials, when rebuilding to cut costs. It wasn't until more destruction from another fire in 1874 that people committed to protecting the city.

Once on the right path, Chicago came back strong. By 1880, the city's population was up to 500,000, from 300,000 before the fire. Business boomed, cementing the city's economic strength. Plus, it became one of the most fireproof cities in the U.S.

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Anchorage, Alaska

city street broken and buildings tilted after Anchorage earthquake

U.S. National Archives / Public Domain

In March of 1964, Alaska's most populous city became ground zero for a 9.2-magnitude earthquake—the second-largest ever recorded. The damage didn't stop there, however. The earthquake triggered underwater landslides, which in turn caused multiple tsunamis. The waves reached 170 feet above sea level, wiping out 30 city blocks and causing $311 million in damage. Minor effects of the disaster were felt as far as South Africa.

The devastation of the Great Alaska Earthquake led to the creation of the NOAA National Tsunami Warning Center, which monitors for tsunami threats and, critically, issues early warnings. Anchorage itself has rebuilt, including creating a beautiful commemorative park on the site where a neighborhood was lost.

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Galveston, Texas

houses toppled and crushed after hurricane

Library of Congress / Public Domain

On Sept. 8, 1900, this Texas town was hit by a category four hurricane that nobody saw coming. With a storm tide of 15 feet high, it engulfed the island city and caused more destruction all the way to the mainland. Often cited as the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history, an estimated 6,000 to 12,000 people perished in its wake.

Before the hurricane, Galveston was the most advanced city in Texas, due in part to its natural harbor and strategic location along the Gulf of Mexico. The determination to return the city to its former glory was evident immediately. The day after the storm, surviving citizens established a committee to direct recovery efforts. Most impressive was a grade-raising project, which consisted of pumping sand underneath the 2,000 surviving structures to raise the level of the land. They also built a 17-foot seawall to protect the city.