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Disasters like the Joplin tornado can also lead to reinvented communities

From post-Katrina New Orleans to tsunami-hit Japan, examples abound of using a crisis for blank-slate redesign after a tragedy.

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Tornado-whipped Joplin is barely done with the rescue-and-relief stages of its giant tragedy. But that Missouri city, which lost about a third of its buildings, even now can start to apply this lesson from a few other places ripped by natural disasters:

Rebuilding can also mean reinventing.

One model of renewal is Greensburg, Kan., a rural town almost demolished by a 2007 megatwister. The townspeople there decided not only to stay put and rebuild their small community, but also to “go green.” They invested heavily in renewable energy sources and constructed energy-efficient buildings.

The town has became such a pioneer in ecoliving that it is now a tourist site. Gloom was replaced by greenness, rekindling a new sense of belonging.

In post-Katrina New Orleans, the hurricane’s destruction was used as an opportunity to revamp public education and rid the city of poor schools; more than half of students now attend charter schools and test scores are rising. And new types of inexpensive houses – called “Katrina cottages” – were invented while a push began to rehabilitate historic structures in sustainable ways. Special housing was provided for musicians as a way to retain the city’s cultural legacy.

New Orleans has experienced such creative renewal since 2005 that a book was published about it last December – “How to Rebuild a City: Field Guide from a Work in Progress” – in hopes of inspiring other cities that face a similar crisis.

Such a vision isn’t always easy in the aftermath of a disaster when simple things like housing the homeless or clearing the clutter of debris seem overwhelming. But communities that pull together for recovery can also come together to rethink their basic ways of doing things, drawing on resources they couldn’t imagine.

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