Recovering from Disaster

In the spring of 2011, remarkably destructive tornadoes ripped through Joplin, Missouri and Tuscaloosa, Alabama within weeks of each other. In both cities, many lost their lives and thousands of buildings were damaged or destroyed. Comparing the local governmental responses in these two cities one year later, David Beito, a history professor at the University of Alabama, and Daniel Smith, an economics professor at Troy University, recently authored an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Tornado Recovery: How Joplin is Beating Tuscaloosa.”

As the title of their piece suggests, Beito and Smith contend that the “can-do spirit” of volunteerism that came in the immediate aftermath of the tornadoes “lives on far more in Joplin than in Tuscaloosa.” They contend that Joplin’s successes stem from a “bottom-up approach, allowing businesses to take the lead in recovery,” while Tuscaloosa’s failures are the result of city officials’ efforts “to remake the urban landscape top-down” by “imposing a redevelopment plan on businesses.” Beito and Smith praise Joplin’s “encouraging businesses to rebuild as quickly as possible,” “rolling back existing regulations,” “liberally waiving licensing and zoning mandates,” and resisting “the temptation to make ‘safe rooms’ a condition of rebuilding.” They cite city sources suggesting that, “in Joplin, eight of ten affected businesses have reopened…while less than half in Tuscaloosa have even applied for building permits.”

Meanwhile, Beito and Smith chide Tuscaloosa’s Mayor, Walt Maddox, for declaring in the days following the tornado that “Out of the heartbreak of the disaster rises an extraordinary opportunity to comprehensively plan and rebuild our city better than ever before.” They admonish the city for temporarily restricting redevelopment until officials could formulate and adopt a long-term recovery plan known as “Tuscaloosa Forward.”

Mayor Maddox authored a brief response, contending that Beito and Smith misrepresented a host of facts about the recovery in both cities. For instance, Mayor Maddox boasted of Tuscaloosa’s issuing over 2,000 repair permits and over 200 construction permits in residential areas, as well as approving repair permits for 92% of damaged commercial structures and rebuilding permits for 34% of destroyed commercial structures. He also sought to correct Beito and Smith by stating that “Tuscaloosa never implemented a moratorium and building permits were issued immediately following the storm.”

In this sense, both the Beito/Smith op-ed and Mayor Maddox’s response use the same baseline in measuring governmental action in the wake of disaster. However, it is not clear that baseline—simply quantifying the number of, or the speed with which, permits are issued or buildings are repaired or reconstructed—is an appropriate metric for a recovery’s success. While at the very end of his piece, Mayor Maddox vaguely referred to the long-term focus of Tuscaloosa’s recovery, it would have been interesting to hear a more spirited defense of the advantages of such an approach in light of Beito and Smith’s utter rejection of it. It seems that expedient post-disaster comprehensive planning can breed a high quality and safe rebuilding effort that demonstrates a respect and concern for long-term consequences for both communities and individuals—and public and private property rights—and is conducted in a fair, transparent manner.

This June, the AALS will convene a “Workshop on Torts, Environment and Disaster.” The latest mailing promoting the event tellingly, if ominously, describes Hurricane Katrina as “the opening act in what will become known as the age of disaster.” The program is sure to tackle the many challenges associated with achieving justice for disaster victims like those in Joplin and Tuscaloosa while simultaneously assuring that communities engage in proper planning to minimize the risk associated with the next catastrophic event.

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