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Donald L. Miller, MacCracken Professor of History, was interviewed live on the “CNN Saturday” news program Sept. 17, giving a historical perspective on the task of rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Miller, author of City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America (Simon & Schuster, 1996), discussed parallels between Katrina’s devastation and Chicago’s Great Fire of 1871, which left one-third of the city’s population homeless. Miller provided perspective on the same topic in the cover story of the Sept. 11 New York Times Week in Review section, titled “No Fixed Address.” Read about that article and other major media coverage of Lafayette.

“Chicago: City of the Century,” a PBS American Experience documentary based on Miller’s book, aired nationwide in January 2003.

A transcript of the interview follows.

CNN anchor: Many people are focusing on rebuilding New Orleans, while others say, don’t rush things. Instead they want to take the time to learn some valuable lessons from rebuilt cities such as Chicago. Donald Miller is a professor of history at Lafayette College and he joins us from New York to talk about this. As the nation looks to rebuild New Orleans, what kind of historical perspective can Chicago give?

Miller: The Chicago fire was the greatest natural disaster in American history up to that time. It’s a city of, at the time, about three hundred thousand people. And the fire, a one-and-a-half-day holocaust, cut a four-mile long swath, a corridor of destruction right through the city. A hundred thousand people, one-third of the city, are homeless, 17,000 buildings destroyed, shanty towns containing the poor, immigrants – the Irish immigrants – completely obliterated outside the city. It was a calamity fully on the scale of the Katrina disaster.

CNN: There are some parallels you can see here, too. So this is another city like New Orleans which had to be built from the ground up. What kind of obstacles did people face at that time that you think many folks will be facing when New Orleans is rebuilt?

Miller: When Chicago was built, it was built as if to invite its own destruction. Like New Orleans, it constantly fought a battle with nature. It was built on a lake plain, right at lake level, and it had tremendous water problems. These created pollution problems, which created disease problems – cholera and typhoid. The whole city had to be raised 12 feet, and they had to reverse the Chicago River. And they did this even before the Great Fire.

But Chicago didn’t learn a lesson from that, and it suffered that second calamity, the fire, because it was built entirely of wood, in an area known for raging prairie fires. When that fire fiend hit Chicago, it simply hit kindling, miles and miles of kindling – wooden streets, wooden houses. Even the roof of the pumping station that was going to protect Chicago was made of wood. The fire department was inadequate. There were constant warnings before the fire about other prairie fires in the area. Chicago itself suffered a tremendous fire the night before the Great Fire.

CNN: So is the key here, don’t rebuild too fast, make sure you do it right?

Miller: Yes, in fact after the fire, Chicago got back on the ground quickly. Even while the ground was still hot they were rebuilding. And they rebuilt the entire city, literally, in a matter of a year and a half. But it was built exactly as it had been built before; it was again susceptible to fire.

What happened – and what I think is going to happen in New Orleans – is the insurance companies really got heavily involved. Chicago had been built very shoddily, and they started to demand that the buildings of the future be built with excellent fireproof protection. Chicago wanted to build skyscrapers, and the insurance companies said, No, we’re not going to allow you to do that unless you provide the most modern fireproofing equipment.

So there was a literally a second Chicago built inside the first rebuilt city, and that city by 1890 was the fourth-largest city in the world, the most modern city in the world, the most up-to-date electronically and technologically, and probably the safest city against fire in the world.

CNN: Many people hope that New Orleans will be rebuilt much better than it ever was. We thank you for your time, Donald Miller with Lafayette College.

Miller: Thank you very much.

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