1906 San Francisco Earthquake Term Paper

San Francisco Earthquake

Massive Earthquake Results in Human Tragedy and Economic Loss”

Exploring the Impact of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

San Francisco CA was hit by one of the most devastating earthquakes recognized by man on April 18, 1906. The earthquake affected 430 kilometers of the famous San Andreas fault ranging from northwest of San Juan Bautista to Cape Mendocino (Ellsworth, 1990). The city that was once San Francisco was reduced by and large to a pile of rubble. The once proud citizens of San Francisco were reduced to wandering and sorrowful masses, trying to rebuild the once great city and recover from the loss and devastation experienced by the unexpected natural disaster.

Geology of the Earthquake

From a geological perspective, the earthquake was characterized by large horizontal displacements that caused much speculation from geologists (USGS, 2000). From these displacements the “elastic-rebound theory” of earthquakes which today is the primary model used to describe earthquake cycles was crafted (USGS, 2000). From a scientific perspective the great San Francisco earthquake benefited scientists tremendously because it provided insight into the cause and evolution of seismic activity along fault lines.

The first shocks were felt at 5:12 AM, with the full earthquake hitting less than a minute later centered in San Francisco (Ellsworth, 1990). The entire quake lasted for less than one minute, between 45 and 60 seconds total, though the aftershocks were felt for some time after (USGS, 2000). The earthquake was felt in states as far away as Oregon and Nevada (USGS, 2000).

The total length of the earthquake was felt for about 290 miles, the largest recorded (USGS, 2001).

The magnitude of the earthquake was estimated between 7.7 (Wald, Kanamori, Helmberger & Heaton, 1993) and 7.9 (USGS, 2000). Because seismology and the study of earthquakes were limited during the early 1900s, an accurate assessment of the magnitude is not possible. There are some accounts that suggest that the earthquake was as great as 8.3, but these are largely unproven (USGS, 2000).

Before this earthquake little scientific effort was dedicated to seismic research. After the earthquake however scientists took an active interest in the area of seismography and government issued investigations into earthquakes became quite commonplace (USGS, 2000).

Today much is understood in the realm of seismography, and researchers actually have the ability to some extent to pinpoint a frame of time an earthquake is most likely to occur in.

The Human Toll and Economy

The casualties from the earthquake were severe. Almost 500 deaths in San Francisco were reported, and 166 deaths reported in surrounding areas (Greeley, 1906; NOAA, 1972). People wandered about in a state of devastation, shock, helplessness and sorrow as a result of the earthquake of 1906.

Thousands of people were left homeless, with estimates at 225,000 people (USGS, 2000). Buildings were also destroyed, to the tune of nearly 30,000 (NOAA, 1972). The reconstruction efforts would be very slow, because so many areas needed to be rebuilt.

Economically, San Francisco and the surrounding area suffered property damages exceeding 480 million dollars from fire and the direct consequences of the earthquake (1906 dollars, which would be much more today) (USGS 2000).

The physical effects of the earthquake included the displacement of the earth’s surface region, the destruction of hundreds of buildings and the rupture of many underground pipes along the fault line (America Hurrah, 2004). Fire resulting from the quake burned continuously for two days resulting in further loss of property and life (America Hurrah, 2004).

One survivor of the earthquake, Edith Weatherred, a reporter, said the following of the earthquake: “rushing to the streets, we saw flames from more than a dozen fires enveloping whole blocks… hydrants had been twisted out of shape, the water supply cut off… came the message, God save us! The city is doomed!” Clearly the impact on human life and living was severe (America Hurrah, 2004).

Communications were inhibited within the city as telephone and communications completely stopped (Hansen, n.d.). Soldiers from the U.S. Artillery were sent in to help manage panic and perform rescues.

According to news reports, people wandered about “in an insane fashion… people were stupefied, and meanwhile the fire burned and burned” (Hewitt, 1906).

Rebuilding a Great City

Thousands were evacuated by the Navy from the city, considered one of the largest evacuations in history. The rebuilding efforts would be slow and tedious. What scientists and officials learned however from this earthquake is that the change in stress on the fault line resulting from this earthquake has actually relaxed the faults resulting in a period of seismic “quiet” that has lasted for years (USGS, 2000).

It is expected that an earthquake of this magnitude could occur in the next 30 years, but the chances are small (approximately 2%) (USGS, 2000). In the meantime the possibility for smaller earthquakes is still quite high. Seismology has also led to predictions about earthquakes in other areas in the U.S. including Boston and other regions of the east cost and middle United States (USGS, 2000). Hopefully the field will help predict another earthquake of such great magnitude within a reasonable time frame so that preparations may be made. In San Francisco most buildings are now constructed to withstand the devastation and impact a major earthquake might entail. This type of construction was not available in 1906, and may be part of the reason the devastation was so incredibly high. There is some hope that an earthquake in modern times will not be as devastating though the impact will still be significant.

The full extent of the damage done by the earthquake was actually underestimated for economic reasons during the time of 1906. Looking back the devastation could not be matched by any other natural disaster during the time.

Governor Pardee of San Francisco reported that the “work of rebuilding San Francisco” would commence as of April 23, 1906 (Hanley, n.d.). People the world over got involved in the rebuilding effort. The Empress Dowager of China even offered to send 100,000 taels to help relieve the suffering in San Francisco though President Roosevelt declined the offer and others from foreign governments (Hanley, n.d.). Interestingly today the U.S. often aids many foreign countries and nationals in the event of national natural disasters.

To a great extent much loss and sorrow was felt among residents of the state as historical towns and homes were destroyed… everyone one looked rubble stood in the place of buildings and homes (McCann, n.d.). The human tragedy that was experienced as a result of this earthquake is unmatched, much like the physical devastation that occurred.

The Mayor of San Francisco at the time, Eugene E. Schmitz, suggested that the Secretary of the Treasury deposit money in national banks to help fund the reconstruction of San Francisco (Bartnett, 1906). In addition an appeal was made to Congress to legalize acceptance of financial assistance and securities to relieve the devastation. Insurance companies could cover the losses covered under policies with the mayor urging payment as soon as possible (Bartnett, 1906).

Reconstruction took form in the following order (1) municipal government, banking and other necessary mercantile institutions, (2) temporary structures in public areas for insurance companies, lawyers and transportation, (3) location of engineers, contractors, draughtsman from other cities to help rebuild and secure building materials including lumber and cement, (4) procurement of carpenters, brick masons and builders from various cities to help in the efforts (Bartnett, 1906).

Obviously special legislation had to be enacted from Congress so that all projects could be considered. In addition members of local governments, states and municipalities, in essence people from across the U.S. worked collectively to help rebuild the great city after the most devastating natural disaster of all time. When natural disasters occur today, governments also turn to neighboring states and the federal government for…

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