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Who Knows, revisited

Early last year, David Allan, then Managing Editor for Features for, gave a TED talk about the parable of the Taoist farmer who refused to label his experiences "good" or "bad". Although he generally considers it a good philosophy, he wasn't convinced it could be applied to the "really bad things" in life.

One slide of my talk listed all the things I wasn't going to apply "Who Knows What's Good or Bad" to, including Hitler, 9/11, school shootings and Hurricane Katrina.

And yet.

Last fall, as Allan saw and heard about the improvements to New Orleans in the decade since Katrina, he saw a pattern emerging.

"We have data that shows before the storm, the high school graduation rate was 54%. Today, it's up to 73%. Before the storm, college enrollment was 37%. Today, it's almost 60%," President Barack Obama said. "We still have a long way to go, but that is real progress. New Orleans is coming back better and stronger."

The city's mayor, Mitch Landrieu, echoed that triumph: "We are not just rebuilding the city that we once were, but are creating the city that we always should have been."

Other cities, too, have benefitted from New Orleans' misfortune. The devastation left by Katrina led NOAA to increase funding for technology to improve forecasting. By the tenth anniversary of Katrina, intensity forecasts had improved by 20 percent.

This is not an isolated case. Other cities and towns such as Banda Aceh, IndonesiaMensias, Peru; and Greensburg, Kansas have returned stronger after natural disasters.

A similar pattern can be found in the natural world. Forest fires are an essential part of forest growth. Rivers are regenerated by floods. Volcanic eruptions can stimulate ocean life.

For the victims, and for their families, a natural disaster is tragic. I don't want to minimize that.

But those who remain to rebuild afterward might say along with the Taoist farmer, Good, bad, who knows how it will turn out in the end?

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