diamond geezer

 Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Great San Francisco Earthquake
18th April 1906


I do love an anniversary. But perhaps flying to San Franscisco for the centenary of North America's strongest recorded earthquake is taking things just a bit too far. Although, surely, this must be the safest possible time to be visiting, because there's absolutely no chance of the long-awaited seismic follow-up happening after an interval of precisely 100 years. Is there?

The great 1906 earthquake struck at 5:12am, just before dawn. A 250-mile stretch of the San Andreas Fault had slipped, suddenly and without warning, unleashing centuries of pent-up tectonic power. Fields cracked, streets undulated and wooden buildings crumpled. In poor areas built on reclaimed marshland the ground liquefied, causing overcrowded slums to collapse and trapping the inhabitants. Most people were asleep in bed at the time, including famous opera singer Enrico Caruso who was staying at the Palace Hotel after a particularly successful concert the night before.
"Everything in the room was going round and round. The chandelier was trying to touch the ceiling and the chairs were all chasing each other. Crash-crash-crash! It was a terrible scene. Everywhere the walls were falling and clouds of yellow dust were rising. My God, I thought it would never stop!" (Enrico Caruso, 1906)
Several died when chimneys dislodged by the violent shaking came crashing down on top of them, including the city's Chief Fire Officer. Not inconsequentially, most of the deaths in San Francisco that day were not from the quake itself but from the savage fires that followed. By late morning flames were jumping from building to building across the city, aided by the fact that almost all the city's water mains had fractured during the quake. This gold-painted hydrant (on the corner of 20th and Church) was one of the few found still to have a functioning water supply, but most areas were not so fortunate. Wealthy residents who had watched early developments with interest (and some amusement) started packing their bags as the fires approached the richer heights of town. By nightfall more than a quarter of San Francisco's inhabitants were homeless. Author Jack London observed the catastrophe at close hand.
"At a quarter past five, just twenty-four hours after the earthquake, I sat on the steps of a small residence on Nob Hill. To the east and south at right angles, were advancing two mighty walls of flame. I went inside with the owner of the house on the steps of which I sat. He was cool and cheerful and hospitable. 'Yesterday morning,' he said, 'I was worth six hundred thousand dollars. This morning this house is all I have left. It will go in fifteen minutes'" (Jack London, 1906)
The fire burned on for two more days, razing most of the city to the ground, finally halted only by a man-made firebreak and some very fortunate rain. At least 3000 people had been killed - that's about the same number as died on 9/11 and double the toll of Hurricane Katrina. These numbers may pale into insignificance against modern deaths from famine, disease and (ahem) American military intervention in the developing world, but a century ago they were cataclysmic. Perhaps surprisingly, 100 years on, millions of Americans still choose to live here along the fault lines of Western California, in the certain knowledge that one day another equally strong earthquake will wreak a similar terrible disaster. It may be incredibly beautiful in San Francisco, but is it really worth the risk? Hmm, what am I doing here?

all about the 1906 earthquake, from the US Geological Survey (check out all the info in the sidebar)
a shorter but dramatic account of the 06 quake and its aftermath
more centennial quakery
1906 eyewitness reports and photographs
modern maps and recent earthquakes (in the last week)
earthquake risk today
Radio 4 documentary on the Frisco Quake (listen again)


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