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“If this were so,” he wrote, “governments could counteract economic downturns and spur new growth simply by destroying property.”

Katrina’s legacy

Many development specialists see post-Katrina New Orleans as a key test case. Tourism has rebounded and the Louisiana Superdome has reopened, but large pockets of devastation remain and the overall population is far below pre-Katrina levels.

“The economy in New Orleans is doing better than it has in decades,” said Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc. He pointed out that the disaster helped New Orleans weather the recession better than most other cities. Its unemployment rate has consistently been two to three points lower than the rest of the country.

“All of that rebuilding activity helped supply employment, while the rest of the country was going through a recession,” he said.

New Orleans received billions of dollars in disaster funding and used that money to build homes, schools, hospitals and businesses that are better than those before Katrina. Many communities that have suffered disasters are innovating as they rebuild.

“It’s given New Orleans brand new infrastructure in everything from flood protection to schools to roads,” Mr. Hecht said. “The near-death experience of Katrina served as a cultural wake-up call for New Orleans. We have a much more innovative attitude.”

The city doesn’t look at the economic revival as a benefit of Katrina. Rather, it sees the turnaround as a way to recognize those who were lost in the disaster.

“You would never characterize Katrina as a ‘good thing,’ ” Mr. Hecht said. “There’s almost nobody here who didn’t lose somebody to Katrina. You would never wish for this.

“What is interesting is you can somewhat honor those who suffered by rebuilding in a way that is smarter, better and more sustainable than before,” he added. “And I believe that’s what we’re doing here.”

The concern in New Orleans, and in other cities that have suffered through disasters, is that the economic boom will disappear after the relief efforts and funding are depleted.

“That is the critical question,” Mr. Hecht said. “When the Katrina funds run out in three to five years, are we going to have an economy that is more robust than we had before Katrina?”

In Joplin, the healing process, both in human and economic terms, remains a work in progress.

“We’re still mourning our losses,” said Joplin’s Ms. Smith. “But this community is not a victim at all.”