Resilience: Towns That Recovered From Devastating Natural Disasters


Across the United States, many towns have suffered at the hands of immense natural and, in some cases, man-made disasters. Some, like Centralia in Pennsylvania, are hit so hard that they never recover.

In other instances, there are happier endings, so which notable towns have recovered from disaster to get back on their collective feet?

St. Louis, Missouri

Image Credit: Strauss – Public Domain/Underwood and Underwood – Missouri History Museum – Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

It may be a thriving modern metropolis today, but the third biggest tornado in history once ravaged St. Louis. On May 27, 1896, a devastating twister worked its way through the city and into East St. Louis, changing the landscape and causing damage that is estimated to equate to $700 million in today’s money.

Residents united in the rebuild, and just eight years later, St. Louis hosted the World’s Fair. The area is always at risk from the weather, but one look at present-day St. Louis makes it hard to imagine the devastating effects of 1896.

Paradise Coast, Florida

Naples Florida Hurricane Irma Damaga before and after

Image Credit: Felix Mizioznikov/LesPalenik/Shutterstock.

Many areas of Florida were devastated by Hurricane Irma in 2017, but the Paradise Coast recovered quicker than most. The category five storm took out the power here, but one of the biggest issues concerned the subsequent flooding.

Less than three months after the event, Paradise Coast looked virtually unchanged from pre-Irma days. If you’d been asleep in the intervening period, you may have even felt that the Hurricane had bypassed this region.

Anchorage, Alaska

Collapse of Fourth Avenue near C Street in Anchorage, Alaska from Earthquake in 1964

Image Credit: U.S. Army – Public Domain/Jet Lowe – Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

A monumental earthquake changed the face of Anchorage when it hit the city in 1964. It struck Prince William Sound at a magnitude of 9.2, a seismic measurement with drastic consequences. The effect was felt over a vast distance, but Anchorage was hit hardest, with landslides and the destruction of homes and city blocks.

Rebuilding began slowly, but the oil boom of 1968 helped to boost the funding effort. The reconstruction is now complete, and Anchorage has learned valuable lessons, becoming a center for monitoring and research of seismic activity.

Galveston, Texas

Galveston, Texas 1900 Hurricane vs present day

Image Credit: Public Domain/Michael Barera, CC BY-SA 4.0/Wiki Commons.

Galveston was faced with the task of recovering from the deadliest natural disaster in United States history. In 1900, the city was at the mercy of a category four storm that would destroy 80% of the area. The hurricane was mainly responsible for causing investors to switch to Houston, making that city a financial powerhouse.

The city restored essential services quickly before beginning a longer rebuild. In the present day, the economy of Galveston has turned around. At the same time, the Galveston Seawall, a coastal barrier built in the aftermath of the storm, has made it into the National Register of Historic Places.

Houston, Texas

Houston, Texas 2017 Hurricane Harvey aftermath vs Houston in 2019

Image Credit: C. Mendoza/VOA – Public Domain/Famartin – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0/Wiki Commons.

Ironically, Houston took a little while to recover from its worst natural disaster. Hurricane Harvey had a devastating impact on the city in 2017, with many tourist attractions and local businesses temporarily closed. 68 people sadly died as a direct consequence of this Grade 4 storm.

Some buildings, including the Wortham Theater Center, have yet to reopen, but to be fair to the city’s residents, they worked hard to help Houston rebuild. Homes and businesses as a whole recovered quickly from the disaster.

Greensburg, Kansas

Greensburg, Kansas 2007 Tornado aftermath vs Greensburg, Kansas solar rebuild 2008

Image Credit: Greg Henshall/FEMA – Public Domain/ Studio804 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0/Wiki Commons.

Tornadoes are measured by the Enhanced Fujita (EF) scale, and the highest level is five. An EF5 twister hit the residents of Greensburg on May 4, 2007. This extreme weather phenomenon laid waste to 95% of the town, causing $268 million in damages.

Not only was Greensburg rebuilt, the City Council took the opportunity to recover in the best possible way. Appropriately, this is now one of the greenest cities in the U.S., with solar panels and wind turbines powering a new and positive Greensburg.

Chicago, Illinois

The Chicago Fire, 1871 Vs present day Chicago architecture

Image Credit: Miscellaneous Items in High Demand – Library of Congress Catalog Public Domain/Bex Walton Chicago – CC BY 2.0/Wiki Commons.

A disaster of a different kind struck this city in 1871 when a small fire quickly spread to become the Great Fire of Chicago. The blaze raged for two days, destroying 3.3 miles of the city. Around 17,500 buildings were damaged, and approximately 300 people lost their lives.

It was a dark period in Chicago’s history, but the residents were resilient, participating in a project that would become known as the ‘Great Rebuilding.’ The fire also led to a response from the Chicago School, a group of architects whose influence can be seen in modern-day Chicago.

Johnstown, Pennsylvania

aftermath of the Johnstown Flood of 1889 Vs present day Johnstown Pennsylvania

Image Credit: Public Domain/Bonnachoven – Own work, CC0/Wiki Commons.

The American Red Cross came to the rescue when Johnstown needed them most. The area was devastated when the Great Flood of 1889 arrived here. Twenty million tons of water was unleashed on the town, and to put that in context, around the same levels pass over Niagara Falls every 36 minutes.

The Red Cross, founded in 1881, helped a vast rebuilding effort to help Johnstown recover, although the magnitude of the flood and the devastation that it caused will never be forgotten.

San Francisco, California

Aftermath damage of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 Vs San Francisco rebuilt in 1915

Image Credit: Genthe, Arnold – Public Domain/Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

It may not have been the most catastrophic natural event in U.S. history, but it has become the most famous. In 1906, the San Andreas fault broke just off the coast of San Francisco. A colossal, 7.9 magnitude earthquake followed, lasting around a minute. Widespread fires were next, as the event laid waste to 500 city blocks.

Rebuilding was inevitably slow, but the authorities and residents of San Francisco did a remarkable job. By 1915, hardly any visible damage remained.

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Matt is a journalist who began his career writing for print media in the 1990s. After filing cricket reports for local newspapers, he contributed to many periodicals in the spheres of sport, collecting, and food and drink. Having attended hundreds of concerts and sporting events, he now focuses on music as well as sport, and is happy to have lasted through to the digital age.

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