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What follows natural disaster? Opportunity
John Casti's op-ed column on the other, more positive, side of X-events such as Hurricane Sandy.

 This aerial photo shows damage in the wake of superstorm Sandy in the central Jersey Shore area of New Jersey.
ASSOCIATED PRESS
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Date published: 12/6/2012

VIENNA, Austria

--As the media warnings for Hurricane Sandy reached fever pitch in late October, I found myself killing time on a business trip in Lisbon strolling through the center of town. Conditioned to disaster by news channels at my hotel, on my walk I was thinking that here is a city that knows something about what it's like to be destroyed by the indifferent hand of a not-so-motherly Nature. On the morning of Nov. 1, 1755, Lisbon was leveled by a magnitude -8.7 earthquake, 20 times more powerful than the quake that destroyed San Francisco in 1906.

The Lisbon quake and the subsequent 60-foot-high tsunami killed about a quarter of the city's residents and destroyed more than 85 percent of the buildings. Comparing these figures with even the highest estimated loss of life and property from the hurricane makes Sandy look like a summer squall by way of comparison. Admiring the magnificent buildings and waterfront in Lisbon today, I found it difficult to envision what the city could possibly have looked like following that huge quake. The "X-event" of the earthquake opened up the opportunity for Lisbon to rebuild its city in a more modern style with much better materials and an entirely new style than would have ever been done had the quake not occurred.

The point of this little story is that since it's always easier to destroy something than it is to create it, short-term X-events are almost always damaging to life, property, and general psychic health. But taking a longer-term perspective, they can be and usually are rather positive. The destructive phase clears away a lot of the "underbrush" of social structures--political, economic, financial, organizational--opening up niches to be filled by innovators, entrepreneurs, and adaptive organizations. In this manner, society is reconfigured in new and generally better ways. Critical infrastructures for power, food, communications, and the like are replaced with more modern and reliable materials and equipment. Society then progresses and becomes far more resilient to future damaging X-events.

CREATIVE DESTRUCTION


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