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After Oklahoma Tornado, To Rebuild Or Not To Rebuild

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To rebuild or not to rebuild?

As recovery slowly begins after deadly tornadoes flattened subdivisions in Moore, Okla., and tore through nearby areas, the complex question has come up again for the disaster-prone region that sits within Tornado Alley.

Moore, a 55,000-resident city south of Oklahoma City, is no stranger to destruction. A 1999 tornado that wreaked havoc upon Moore had winds topping 300 miles per hour, and it was slammed by smaller tornadoes in 1998, 2003 and 2010. But each time, like dozens of other American communities prone to natural disaster, it has rebuilt.

Disaster recovery and urban planning experts say the tendency to rebuild American cities that have experienced tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes and flooding -- and are likely to see such trauma again -- can be attributed to a mixture of economics, politics, nationalism and spiritual views that often sets the U.S. apart from other nations.

"In the modern age, no major American city has been permanently abandoned after trauma and destruction," said Thomas Campanella, an associate professor of urban planning and design at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"There's a narrative of resilience, this notion of us being challenged and overcoming that to become stronger," said Campanella, who co-edited The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover From Disaster.

When fires nearly wiped out Boston in 1676 and Chicago in 1871, preachers described them as events sent by God to force residents to create bigger, better cities.

San Francisco today sits where a city was torn to pieces by an earthquake in 1906. In South Florida, Hurricane Andrew wiped out parts of the region in 1992, but signs of damage are nearly invisible today amid the crowded, rebuilt subdivisions. The same goes for the Texas Gulf Coast, which has repeatedly been hit by hurricanes.

Most recently, billions of dollars have been invested in restoring New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, while businesses and homes along the New York and New Jersey shores are continuing to reopen after Hurricane Sandy.

Some of the pressure to rebuild, and not relocate, is financial.

"A lot of it has to do with the economy and getting people back to work. Places like Moore are attached to metropolitan areas, and there are jobs and businesses to run. And then there is infrastructure. It's tragic to see houses torn apart and people suffering, but in the recovery process you look at the fact that streets are still there, and there is the underground infrastructure still there," said Eugenie Birch, a professor of urban planning at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Then there are also FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] regulations, if you get assistance for rebuilding, that only support building in certain kinds of ways in certain places," usually the same place as the disaster, noted Birch.

There's also a desire to return to normal as quickly as possible.

"You would think here is a rebuilding, here is an opportunity to get it right, to rebuild the right way and replace the city, but in fact that opposite usually occurs," said Campanella. "There is an inertia to get back to the way things were the day before. It can work against any visionary, bold planning."

But it doesn't always play out this way. Some communities have not rebuilt or have taken a much slower, more thoughtful route to recovery.

Consider Cordova, Ala. Hit head on by a tornado in 2011, the small town of 2,500 residents only began demolishing its downtown for serious rebuilding last month. Though city officials have blamed the delay on slow-to-come FEMA funds, it has allowed residents to work with urban planners from Auburn University on long-term recovery planning that could produce more resilient designs for destroyed areas.

Some disasters are deemed simply too difficult or expensive to clean up. When the federal government discovered in 1983 that floodwaters had spread dangerous levels of dioxin across Times Beach, Mo., it evicted residents and bought out their property for $32 billion. The former city is now a state park. A similar situation occurred in Gilman, Colo., a small town whose residents were sent packing by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1984 when flooding caused dangerous chemicals to spread from a former coal mine.

But to find bigger cities that have been abandoned after disaster, one has to look outside the U.S. In 2008, an earthquake in Beichuan, China, killed more than 50,000 people. Officials responded by moving residents to a nearby county and declaring that the city would not be rebuilt. Epecuen, a lakeside resort town in Argentina that at its height held 20,000 residents, was abandoned in 1985 after the dam broke and it was flooded. The waters only recently receded.

Jerold Kayden, a professor of urban planning and design at Harvard, points out the pull between private property rights and societal concerns in disaster recovery. "On one hand, people want to build wherever they have property and land, and that includes rebuilding on the same plot after a disaster," he said. "On the other hand, post-disaster we come to expect and want government assistance," which raises issues of good public policy.

"We are not a society that says, 'You've made your bed, now sleep in it.' We help people," said Kayden. "But we have to find a comfortable medium that allows people to live where they desire while offering protection and building with the future in mind."

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