Innovation & Design

San Fran's Lessons for New Orleans


On the early morning of April 18, 1906, the ground heaved beneath San Francisco. The earthquake lasted for less than a minute, sheering facades off buildings, ripping houses from their foundations, and opening a rift in the ground 270 miles long and up to 21 feet deep. "It was as if the earth was slipping gently from under our feet," wrote one survivor. "Ahead of me a great cornice crushed a man as if he were a maggot."

But if damage from the quake was extensive, the fires that followed were catastrophic. "The most terrible thing I saw was the futile struggle of a policeman and others to rescue a man who was pinned down in burning wreckage," recalled another eyewitness. "The helpless man watched in silence till the fire began burning his feet. Then he screamed and begged to be killed. The policeman took his name and address and shot him through the head."

Nearly 100 years have passed since survivors recorded these accounts of the Great Earthquake of 1906, yet that disaster holds striking similarities to the catastrophes that have unfolded across the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina last week.

UNSALVAGEABLE TREASURES. At the turn of the 20th century, San Francisco had roughly the same population as New Orleans did before Katrina. In both cities, news reports had offered eerily prescient warnings of impending disaster. Just as the Times-Picayune foretold of the tragedy that awaited New Orleans should its levees be breached, newspaper reports more than 100 years ago compared San Francisco to a tinderbox awaiting a match.

Likewise, in both cities it wasn't the actual event, but a series of ensuing catastrophes that caused the greatest physical damage. In New Orleans it wasn't the hurricane itself, but the rupture of the levees that left 80% of the Crescent City under water and the ensuing fires that brought on the most destruction. As of Sept. 7, officials estimated it could take between 24 to 80 days to fully drain the city. The resulting water damage will likely leave many of the city's historic treasures unsalvageable.

Similarly, in San Francisco firestorms triggered by broken gas mains reduced more than a third of the city to ashes, causing more damage than the earthquake itself. Water main breaks led to water shortages. Desperate to put out the flames, firefighters used dynamite to try to blast firebreaks, often inadvertently setting the city ablaze anew.

MODEL CITY. The fires raged for three days and charred more than 500 square blocks -- nearly a quarter of the city. By the time rescuers were able to sift through the cinders, more than 250,000 people were left homeless -- roughly the same number displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

In both instances law and order succumbed to looting as civilized urban dwellers resorted to survival tactics. The most economically marginalized neighborhoods suffered the most in both cases. The two cities were reduced to rubble as its citizens watched in horror and finally fled to safety, some never to return permanently.

It's also true, though, that San Francisco, so beloved today, is what it is in part because of that disaster. As New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf region begin the daunting task of rebuilding, they should look to the California city as a model.

RELIEF WORKERS' PRIORITIES. In the immediate aftermath of the Great 1906 Earthquake and fires, the army, then stationed atop the Presidio, a citizens committee made up of 50 prominent San Franciscans, and the American Red Cross were the first and primary agencies to respond.

As we are seeing in the wake of Katrina, those who had the means either left the city or roomed with friends or relatives. Those who remained were mostly low-income wage earners without access to transportation and no real alternative.

Food, water, and transportation from the disaster zone were the relief workers' first priority, then came shelter in the form of tents. As aid workers and officials shifted their focus from relief to recovery and finally to reconstruction, a combination of grants and loans were given to middle-class families who owned land or could afford to purchase it and could demonstrate credit-worthiness to support the building of permanent "Bonus Housing" in the burned district.

WORKING REFUGEES. However, more than a month after the disaster, some 40,000 "refugees" were still living in tent camps. A semblance of normalcy had taken hold, which in itself raised concern: Would these squatter settlements become permanent? The civilian committee charged with leading the relief efforts debated the options. Some argued for the construction of temporary housing, others for something more permanent.

In the midst of this quandary, officials noted that many of those remaining in the camps hadn't lost everything. They still had jobs. Indeed, a survey after the disaster revealed that a remarkable 89% of men, 39% of women and 25% of children in the camps were wage earners who just weeks after the disaster were again receiving regular paychecks.

It was with these low-income wage earners in mind that the committee arrived at a novel solution that would both provide temporary housing for the city's poorest while guaranteeing an end to the camps: The small wooden cottage.

FROM CAMPS TO COTTAGES. Between September, 1906 and March, 1907, the City of San Francisco built more than 5,610 "temporary" cottages. They were designed by the Army Corps of Engineers and were built by the carpenters union. The finished homes were painted green -- the same green used to paint the city's park benches.

Families rented the cottages for $2 a month, which went toward the full purchase price of $50. To free the city's public parks, any occupant who could purchase or lease a lot was granted ownership of the cottage and allowed to move it from the park at their own expense. Tenants were required to move the cottages out of the camps no later than August, 1907 -- a year and a half after the disaster.

The cottages not only provided decent temporary shelter but also a path to home ownership for hundreds of low-income families. By the time the last camp closed in 1909, new homeowners had moved more than 5,343 cottages out of the camps. Remarkably, some of these cottages are still in use today. Perhaps most important, by providing housing for the working class who became the backbone of the recovery efforts, San Francisco paved the way for a speedy recovery.

TOP-HEAVY TODAY. Interestingly, there was no formal plan for the rebuilding of San Francisco. A group of prosperous business leaders calling themselves the Citizens Committee of Fifty led the effort, making most of the decisions and instigating programs to construct housing and rebuild the civic center.

Today, the recovery effort in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast will likely be influenced by a very different Committee of Fifty, a more distant set of patriarchs, who shape the policies of such federal agencies as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Small Business Administration, and the Housing & Urban Development Dept., and at the state level the HOME Investment Partnerships Program, and the Community Development Block Grant Program. Not to mention the many private insurers who will likely finance most of the rebuilding effort.

Already, government agencies are accepting applications from victims of Hurricane Katrina. On Aug. 8, FEMA announced it had contracted with private companies to begin building temporary housing units with electricity, potable water, and sanitary sewage facilities. HUD announced it would expand its "Section 8" housing program, which provides subsidized rental assistance to low-income tenants.

TURNING TO FEMA. As with most disasters, Census figures reveal that Hurricane Katrina disproportionately hurt those on the economic fringe. According to the latest Census figures, nearly one in four people in the hardest-hit areas lived below the poverty line, about double the national average. In one of the worst-hit neighborhoods in the heart of New Orleans, the median household income was less than $7,500. Many of these victims will fall through the cracks.

Though we instinctively turn to FEMA in times of crisis, few understand the complex -- and in some ways limited -- role the agency plays in assisting communities recovering from disaster.

Established in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter, FEMA's primary role is one of coordination. It offers assistance to communities in rebuilding and repairing essential services such as roads, communications infrastructure and power, as well as a handful of programs that provide short-term aid and housing to individuals.

CONVOLUTED BREW. FEMA's programs aren't intended to help families recoup their full losses or meet permanent housing needs. It does administer The National Flood Insurance Program through contractors, but only homeowners who have purchased policies in advance are eligible.

For long-term housing assistance, individuals must look to other agencies. The SBA offers disaster assistance loans to homeowners with decent credit of up to about $200,000. HUD programs such as the HOME Investment Partnerships Program, and the Community Development Block Grant Program, which are administered at a state and local level, focus on affordable housing.

It's a convoluted brew of programs with even more complex application requirements and procedures, and even those who successfully navigate the process will likely find themselves wanting. After Hurricane Isabel in 2003, families who felt they had unfairly received only partial compensation on their claims from insurance adjusters under contract with FEMA filed a class action. Others were still living in temporary trailers 18 months to 2 years after the disaster.

LEAP OF IMAGINATION. Obviously what worked in San Francisco a century ago won't work today. However, the challenge for officials, planners, and community development groups involved in rebuilding the Gulf Coast, will be to find an equally elegant solution, one that invests in not only housing, but the people who will build and occupy those homes.

What will New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast look like a century from now? It's a question only the people of those communities can answer. Rebuilding takes place as much in the collective imagination of a city as it does in the physical realm.

They will have to work with government partners at all levels to demand the kind of flexible and innovative policy and planning initiatives that lead to sustainable and inclusive communities. But they can learn from San Francisco, one of the world's most beautiful cities.

Simply put, much of that city's grace and charm can be attributed to the marriage of policy and design that helped speed its economic recovery in the years after 1906. From the humblest "refugee cottages" to the luxury hotels of Nob Hill, thoughtful design and attention to detail permeated every aspect of the rebuilding effort.

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