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These Communities Decided Not To Rebuild After Disaster

It seems that despite always asking the question, the answer is always the same: rebuild. Except in these cases - when entire communities just pick up and leave

Every time a natural disaster ravages and destroys a community or region, the same question pops up: why bother rebuilding? The answers are numerous: this is where we’ve always lived, these are our homes, we will not bend to nature, where else will we go? It seems that despite always asking the question, the answer is always the same: rebuild. Except sometimes—when entire communities just pick up and leave.

The rebuilding question was asked after Katrina destroyed New Orleans, and now after Sandy demolished the New Jersey Shore. The New York Times:

We should strongly discourage the reconstruction of destroyed or badly damaged beachfront homes in New Jersey and New York. Some very valuable property will have to be abandoned to make the community less vulnerable to storm surges. This is tough medicine, to be sure, and taxpayers may be forced to compensate homeowners. But it should save taxpayers money in the long run by ending this cycle of repairing or rebuilding properties in the path of future storms. Surviving buildings and new construction should be elevated on pilings at least two feet above the 100-year flood level to allow future storm overwash to flow underneath. Some buildings should be moved back from the beach.

It’s asked each tornado season, and after every earthquake and hurricane. A debate on Debate.org echoes these questions. People say yes, rebuilding can work:

New Orleans should be rebuilt and restored, because it is a historic city and a valuable seaport. New Orleans should be rebuilt and restored because it is one of the most historically significant cities in the U.S. It is also a valuable seaport that has a significant effect on the national economy. Aside from practical reasons, rebuilding New Orleans would provide a psychological boost to the country, displaying determined resilience.

People also say no, it’s a terrible idea:

I feel if we are going to use taxpayer money to rebuild, then we should move the city, because nothing has been done to correct the faults that caused the situation in the first place. Why rebuild a city when the issues that caused the situation to happen have not been corrected? That would be like building a house at the bottom of Niagara Falls. If we are going to pour tax dollars to rebuild, then the logical thing to do would either be to fix the levy system first, or to build the city away from flood zones.

Of course, every area has its own dangers. One commenter on Minnesota Public Radio’s debate says:

Does it make sense to live in a region that is below zero for half of the year?

Does it make sense to live in a desert?

Does it make sense to live in tornado alley?

Does it make sense to live in an earthquake zone?

Since early humans moved out of the tropics, we have had to respond to an environment that is trying to kill us.

California has earthquakes, New Orleans has flooding, the East Coast has hurricanes, the West tornados. The list could go on. But some towns really do move on and don’t rebuild.

In 2011, a series of tornadoes destroyed the town of Cordova, in Alabama. Today, the town looks largely the same as it did just after the tornadoes. Buildings haven’t been rebuilt, the downtown area is closed, and there’s shattered glass everywhere. The mayor of Cordova, Drew Gilbert, still does his mayoral duties, but the town is largely abandoned and unrestored. 

In 2008, an earthquake demolished Beichuan, China, and killed over 50,000 people. Officials announced that the whole town, all the surviving residents, would be moved to a neighboring county and that Beichuan would not be restored. The ruins are taking on a new life now, not as a community, but as a tourist attraction. NPR reports:

The city of Beichuan is abandoned. A fence topped with concertina wire prevents entry. But the ruined city has become a tourist attraction anyway.

When I visited recently, I walked by vendors who line the mountain road, selling earthquake memorabilia. Visitors can buy DVDs of disaster footage taken in the immediate aftermath of the quake: aerial before-and-after photographs of the city, and photo books that the vendors make sure to leave open to the most ghastly image of a half-dozen broken, gray young bodies, buried in the rubble.

In Mexico, the village of San Juan Parangaricutiro was buried by lava in 1943, and the only standing building left is a church, entombed in the black rock. No one has tried to rebuild. And Craco, Italy, was abandoned in the 1960s due to constant earthquakes, never to be saved. In the United States, areas of Detroit and New Orleans are empty after economic and natural disasters have taken their toll.

So some do abandon their homes, move elsewhere, and seek higher ground. But doing so is hard and leaves destruction behind.

More from Smithsonian.com:

The World’s Muddiest Disaster
How Plants and Animals Can Prepare Us for the Next Big Disaster

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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