At about 7:30 a.m. on Aug. 29, 2005, several hundred feet of New Orleans' Industrial Canal levee collapsed. Within three hours small sections of other levees suffered collapses, dooming the city to catastrophic flooding.
At about 2 a.m. on Sept. 2, 1666, a fire broke out in a baker's house near the Thames waterfront in London. By daybreak the fire was strong enough to eventually consume most of London within its ancient walls. It took three days for flooding and fire to dissipate. The affected neighborhoods were unlivable.
New Orleans is one of the world's busiest seaports and a leading tourist destination. London at the time was among the three largest cities in the West, with Paris and Constantinople. The respective countries of each city were experiencing a phenomenal middle-class expansion over several generations.
Tracing what happened before and after both catastrophes, we can understand better not only New Orleans' experience but also a pivotal event in early modern history that occurred 339 years earlier than Katrina.
THE SIMILARITIES BEGIN
The Great Fire of London is a candidate for the first major modern catastrophe. A "wrath of God" explanation fails the test of credibility. Instead, nature proposed and human ingenuity disposed. Scientists predicted both, and unexpected safety failures and confusion in the initial hours after disaster struck sealed these cities' fates.
Hurricanes and other storms have ravaged the Gulf Coast for decades, just as fires beleaguered English towns. In 1633, London Bridge had a near catastrophic fire. Its northern end was close to where the 1666 fire began.
In both cities weak political leadership and real-estate interests delayed the organization of safety measures to match economic development in the decades prior to catastrophe.
New Orleans grew northerly up to the edge of Lake Pontchartrain. Catastrophe prevention was split between the Army Corps of Engineers and locally elected levee boards. These boards had left critical pumps in their original sitings rather then relocate them to match the expansion of land use. Adjacent to the Lower Ninth Ward in the eastern part of the city was a canal complex not essential to water traffic. As a Dutch expert asked after the disaster: Why invite the enemy so deep into your camp?
The Corps, known for its meticulous engineering standards, had built sections of some levees--the ones that collapsed--on soft, porous soil. This was not discovered until postmortems after Katrina. How this oversight occurred is not yet known. Correcting it may have been impossible given that the defects were hidden underground and the Corps did not make detailed construction records available for independent inspection.
In London, the local government made its residents serve on local fire brigades. But it let the waterfront area, like an enemy deep in its camp, remain a feast of combustibles. It also failed to prepare for itself the moral and legal authority needed for the most effective fire-fighting method of the day--rapidly tearing down private buildings to create fire breaks.
An English polymath named John Evelyn wrote in 1659 about pollution from London's packed industrial waterfront, which contained, among many businesses, "Brewers, Diers, Lime-burners, Salt, and Sope-boylers, and some other private Trades." That Evelyn only glanced at fire risk might be understandable given the constant concern of the time about the plague. After all, an outburst of plague in 1665 carried away far more people than did the Great Fire a year later. (Both the Great Fire and Katrina killed far fewer than the devastation would suggest.)
Meanwhile, the country's leaders were caught up in military exigencies. England was anxious about a possible war with France and Holland. Its navy was assembling a large fleet in Southampton.
At an early Sunday hour of the Great Fire, the mayor of the city of London was reported as making light of the minor size of the fire. When the fire began to spread uncontrolled, he suffered a nervous breakdown.
At about 100 feet per hour, the fire worked outward from its origins, east toward the Tower, north toward the ancient gates of the city, and west to and through the old St. Paul's Church. By Monday morning, a mile of combustible waterfront was ablaze or in ruins. The city's 200,000 residents sought the safety of open fields just a few miles distant, where, much like refugees from New Orleans, they waited "lying about with their heaps of what they could save . . . deploring their loss."
For King Charles II, the first serious debriefing appears to have fallen to Samuel Pepys, the well-known diarist of the time who left us an account of the disaster dotted with peculiar asides, such as how he buried his round of parmesan cheese for safekeeping and how to calm his nerves he visited his mistresses. On Sunday, a hired watercraft conveyed him to Westminster along the entire breath of the besieged waterfront. There Pepys met Charles, his brother the Duke of York and both their mistresses in the king's bedchamber.
At that meeting the royals mobilized, dispatching military units, sending money, beer, cheese and bread to neighborhood crews, and authorizing impressments.
When looting broke out in London, the King placed the Duke of York in supreme command. In a few days, he decided to summon to London General George Monck. Monck left his command of the assembling fleet to lead law enforcement and emergency sheltering.
The royals allowed themselves to "sometimes even to intermix" with the crowd. At least, this was what the "London Gazette," a weekly serving as a combination semiofficial newspaper, press office and domestic spy operation, told its readers.
At the worst time during the lead up to Katrina's landfall, local political leaders in New Orleans waffled. Mayor Ray Nagin did not order mandatory evacuation until Sunday morning. He failed to mobilize a fleet of parked and ready buses.
As we have learned, President George W. Bush became seriously engaged by watching television clippings while in his personal element: Crawford, Texas, where he makes his home. He assigned to Karl Rove the job of coordinating federal relief and recovery efforts.
For several days the White House allowed the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to flail until he was replaced.
When looting and near-guerrilla war broke out in New Orleans, the Bush administration did not find a strong individual to take charge.
London's recovery began more quickly than what has been seen in New Orleans. That may be because London was the political and economic seat of the country, or maybe because the king was intimately involved in recovery. For both cities, the disaster forced people to think boldly about the future. London showed how reconstruction might succeed: with disruptive private innovation abetted by forceful government.
Within 10 days of the Great Fire, Charles II received several ambitious plans for the reconstruction of the city. Christopher Wren was one of the authors. (His St. Paul's Cathedral was not to be started in construction until 1675.) In a few weeks, Parliament enacted a law severely regulating the construction of new buildings, and within a year a new building code was promulgated.
The political leaders among the royals and in Parliament sought to make sure that reconstruction not only complied with new building codes, but also that it be done quickly. To do this, it had to prevent a logjam of litigation threatened by disputes between tenants who had been burned out and their landlords. Parliament created a new land court. Pressed into action within a year of the fire, the court coerced tenants and landlords to come forward with rebuilding plans. The exquisite master plans presented to Charles--grids of wide, straight streets--were eventually pushed aside. Innovation came in new building techniques and in vertically organized real-estate ventures run by people such as Nicholas Barbon.
He owned his own brisk factory, used modular construction and employed a phalanx of lawyers to beat back creditors. He and competitors launched in St James, Soho and other suburban neighborhoods of the walled city what we would call housing developments today.
Barbon also founded the first insurance company in England, The Fire Office, which owned its own fire engines. He wrote using what we call today strict underwriting guidelines.
Thus, the first insurance company of the modern age was founded upon an integrated solution of avoidance, prevention, mitigation and risk transfer. Later, he wrote an economic tract presaging 20th century thought that a nation's economic wealth was not in physical assets or currency but in the size of consumer and business demand for goods and services. He died deep in debt.
The ending to this story of London rising from the ashes suggests a mirror ending to the New Orleans scenario. Radical, controversial real-estate ventures come into the Crescent City, supported by eminent domain and public investment. The developers build a smaller Big Easy with a more elaborate mix of tourist and recreational assets. And some of the visionaries end up in bankruptcy court.
is a Vermont-based writer and columnist for Risk & Insurance®.
September 1, 2006
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