It's been five years since we looked up from our morning coffee to see two columns of smoke fill out the New York skyline where we were used to finding a pair of sleek glass and steel monuments to American ingenuity and arguably the financial heart of the world. As for me, I was supposed to fly home from Washington, D.C., that morning and ended up listening to 15 hours of news on the car radio instead, driving home to Jacksonville, Fla. I'm grateful for not having lost any family, friends, or loved ones that day, but none of us has escaped the impact of Sept. 11 entirely.

Profit from disaster
Enough time has passed that Hollywood now feels ready to profit from the attack through movies and TV specials, though I've yet to hear a stand-up comic making fun of it. (No, The Colbert Report doesn't count.) I'm here today to paint a brighter picture than some of my colleagues will and to focus on how you could have made your profit from the atrocities of 2001, way before the movie studios did. In the process, we might learn something about how the market might respond to the next disaster. As unpleasant as that thought is, I'd rather be prepared than surprised.

Using the powerful screening tools provided by Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's, I went looking for companies that had done poorly in the two years leading up to the attack but that have produced stellar results and shareholder returns ever since. Here's a selection of findings that caught my eye.





Southern Copper (NYSE:PCU)





Giant Industries (AMEX:GI)





American Science & Engineering (NASDAQ:ASEI)





Petroleum Development (NASDAQ:PETD)















Phelps Dodge





Breaking it down
These companies fall into four categories, three of which have Sept. 11 and the events it set in motion to thank for at least some of their recent success. The first and most obvious is security, as represented by Motley FoolRule Breakers pick American Science & Engineering.

The company makes detection devices that can screen airline baggage or find drugs and explosives in closed containers. Before Sept. 11, the stock had been meandering sideways or even down for five years, but the price instantly doubled after the attacks and has gone on to become a seven-bagger over five years.

The surprising part of this finding is that security stocks were in fact a rare find in my screen results. It looks as though these companies have had a hard time turning that initial boost and the inflow of government contracts into sustained excellent market performance. American Science & Engineering is sitting on important technology, but it also has a talented management team that has kept its eye on the ball for half a decade now.

Another rather glaring entrant is the infrastructure builders, represented here by Dutch all-around construction expert Arcadis NV and steel-pipe manufacturer NS Group. Their results speak for themselves, but there are a couple of caveats here. For one, Arcadis does a fair amount of work in the U.S. but does not seem to be directly involved in the rebuilding efforts in New York and Washington, nor in the Afghanistan or Iraq theaters. Instead, it's improving our infrastructure across the country and is actually stronger in the European market than it is over here.

Still, I'll let the company represent a strong sector -- behemoths like Halliburton (NYSE:HAL) and Fluor (NYSE:FLR) have done quite well for themselves, just not quite good enough to land on my list of standouts.

NS Group segues into the next category, which is energy. When the Twin Towers went down, a chain of events was triggered that led to the Iraqi war, general instability across the oil-rich Middle East, and, hence, increased oil prices.

Among the companies that have stood to benefit the most have been drilling, exploration, and oilfield-services companies like Giant Industries and Petroleum Development, and you'd be hard-pressed to find better performances than these unless you're thinking about obscure energy drinks. Of course, Katrina and her waves and wind helped boost these stocks as well, proving the value of rebuilding experts in times of uncertain supply, whatever the reason for that shortfall.

Red herring
And then there's the absolute false positive, the Fool's gold (small F?) among the real 24-carat performers: mining stocks.

Yes, Southern Copper and Phelps-Dodge, among many others, have made a mint from rising prices on basic materials like copper and zinc, but the fact that their rise coincides with Sept. 11 must be ascribed to pure happenstance. Prices on these metals have been skyrocketing all right, pulling their producers along, but it's mostly on account of demand in developing massive infrastructures (there's that word again ...), like those of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China).

Chinese demand has even been quoted as a reason for the rising costs of home construction here in the states, as the Chinese have been buying up all the concrete it could find on the international market for years. It will take some metal to rebuild the towers and get Iraq into shape again, but these demands are vanishingly small next to the bigger fish in the pond.

Summa summarum
So, what have we learned here? I think the biggest takeaway is just how fragile our oil-based economy is. Armed conflicts in a couple of key production centers and the occasional windstorm can drive the oil market bonkers at any time, while metals and general construction are much more robust markets that require a bigger event than a few regional wars in order to move very much, in this Fool's opinion.

In fact, while Sept. 11 had an immense impact on the American psyche and may have steeled our resolve into brilliance in unrelated pursuits, it doesn't appear that any sector outside oil production gained much from this tragedy. I don't think that should disqualify oil from socially responsible investing strategies, though. If good times fall into your lap under unfortunate circumstances, you should still try to make the best of it.

So, oil or nothing, barring the occasional success story like American Science. Planning to make a profit from disaster might be harder than I thought at the start of this project.

Further Foolishness:

Check out a free 30-day trial to Rule Breakers to see why David Gardner's team thought so highly of American Science & Engineering. The next ultimate growth stock might be waiting in the wings over there.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here. You can check out Anders' holdings if you like. Foolishdisclosureis ready for anything, anytime.