The key questions in the reconstruction of New Orleans, which early estimates say may require ten years and more than $200 billion, are already taking shape: Should the city give up on low-lying areas to better protect the high, or simply build more and higher levees? Because the destruction was concentrated in poor and black neighborhoods, will the new city be a smaller, gentrified, theme-park version of its former self? History shows that cities tend to recover fully, and with surprising speed—though the lessons of the disasters that crippled them are often quickly forgotten. Here are some disasters that have befallen modern cities, and the recoveries that followed.
1. Chicago fire, 1871. The fire destroyed 18,000 buildings and left nearly a third of the city's residents homeless—though only 300 died. Real-estate developers quickly seized on the fire as a great opportunity. Whole blocks stood clear and ready for redevelopment, and downtown land prices speedily rose above their pre-fire levels. The "Burnt District" was largely rebuilt in two years, with great zeal and little care—the Chicago Tribune warned that more would die in the reconstruction than in the fire itself. In a second round of rebuilding, in the 1880s, Chicago pioneered the vertical city of steel-framed skyscrapers.