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Summary Article: San Francisco Earthquake (1906)
From Encyclopedia of Disaster Relief

The San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which occurred on April 18, was characterized by a very high magnitude of 8.3 on the Richter scale. It directly caused more than 700 deaths, with estimates of about 3,000 deaths caused directly or indirectly by the earthquake in the San Francisco Bay area. More than 225,000 people from a population of about 400,000 became homeless. In terms of building environment, 80 percent of the city was destroyed by the earthquake and the subsequent fires. Regarding the monetary loss, it was estimated at that time to be about $400 million. These figures describe the severe humanitarian consequences following this earthquake, one of the most devastating in U.S. history.

The earthquake caused a rupture on the northern third of the San Andreas Fault in California for a distance of 296 miles, from San Juan Bautista on the south to Cape Mendocino on the north. Its epicenter was two miles away from the city of San Francisco.

The main destruction was caused by the fires that resulted from the earthquake. Over 30 fires erupted in the city, and some of them lasted for three days. As a result, more than 28,000 buildings were destroyed. Due to the fact that the water pipes were severely damaged by the earthquake and not all firefighters had adequate training, the ability to cope with the devastating fires was very limited. In addition, some citizens burned up their damaged houses and property in order to receive compensation from their insurance companies. At that time, insurance companies tended to provide fire insurance, but not earthquake insurance.

Immediate disaster relief assistance was sent to the area from the U.S. government and abroad. During the first days following the disaster, the total sum of donations reached $5 million. This fact enabled a quick organization of food kitchens, tents for homeless people, and other kinds of humanitarian aid. This assistance could not address the whole range of social needs following the earthquake, but it provided the necessary minimum for survival during the first post-disaster period. The U.S. Army was also extensively involved in relief efforts during the first months after the disaster. The soldiers dealt with various missions, such as assistance to the fire department, protection of official institutions, and private buildings from looting (mainly during the first weeks after the earthquake). They were also involved in food and clothing provision. Another significant activity that was carried out by the U.S. Army was building temporary wood houses for people who lost their houses and became refugees.

The official data regarding the number of people who lost their lives and the economical damage, which was reported following the earthquake, was substantially underestimated. The local political and business leadership focused on the mission of quick rebuilding of the city and were concerned that the real figures will reduce investments. Following the earthquake, although there was an effort to establish more strict building standards, after one year they were changed again and the new codes were even less stringent than the pre-earthquake standards.

Only after dozens of years were more earthquake-resistant building regulations established. However, the speed of reconstruction of the building environment all over the city was remarkable. One of the stimuli for the rapid building was the planned opening of the World's Fair in San Francisco in 1915, which was called the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. By that year, there was almost no visible evidence of the earthquake and the subsequent fire damage. In that year, the city of San Francisco also established the annual commemoration ceremony that included the earthquake's survivors and honored the victims.

Since the earthquake of 1906, scientific earthquake research in the United States has significantly advanced and broadened. In 1908, Professor Andrew C. Lawson from the University of California, Berkeley, with fellow scientists from various institutions, published a detailed Lawson Report on the San Francisco earthquake's damage and its geological characteristics. This report served as an important benchmark for future research on earthquakes' effects in the United States.

Stanford University sustained massive damage to the Stanford Library as a result of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, but the fires were the most destructive element. The April 19, 1906, front page of the Call-Chronicle-Examiner relayed the grim news.

See Also:

Earthquake Zones, Earthquakes, Fires, Urban, History of Disaster Relief, North America, Refugees, United States, California and West Coast.

Further Readings
  • Barker, Malcolm E. Three Fearful Days: San Francisco Memoirs of the 1906 Earthquake & Fire. San Francisco, CA: Londonborn Publications, 2005.
  • Morris, Charles. The San Francisco Calamity by Earthquake and Fire. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002.
  • Winchester, Simon. A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.
  • Altshuler, Alex
    Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
    © SAGE Publications, Inc

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