The 1906 earthquake was an event unequaled in American history until Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans: the devastation of an American city via a combination of natural disaster and human error. The people of San Francisco had (almost deliberately) learned nothing from prior earthquakes, building the same buildings in the same way over and over again. When disaster struck in April 1906, they were left with a city in ruins, incapable of fighting the fires that would engulf most of the city for the next three days. Civil government collapsed. Vigilantism was common, and innocent citizens were murdered. Fire was spread through the almost inexplicable use of dynamite. Thousands were killed, and even more were homeless. When it was over, a small cabal of wealthy citizens controlled the purse strings for the relief effort, often directing funds towards what would most serve their interests. These citizens tried to eliminate Chinatown, and also did much to exacerbate tensions between the Roosevelt government and Japan. Then they finally turned towards what was most angering them: wiping out the very civil government that had been lawfully elected in 1905, through self-serving and thoroughly corrupt graft trials that have become a black mark in the history of American jurisprudence.
Fradkin’s book is a fascinating social history of turn of the century San Francisco, as well as an interesting discussion of how the 1906 disaster became the first seismic event that was thoroughly documented and which is still learned from today. A bit slow and disjointed in parts, and hampered in some areas because of a lack of data (through no fault of the author), it’s especially interesting to read in light of what happened in New Orleans. As much as in New Orleans, the hubris of man, the failure to build appropriate structures, insufficient government response, and unequal suffering between races and classes all show themselves in the San Francisco earthquake. Interestingly, the people of San Francisco refused to acknowledge the earthquake afterwards, referring only to the fire, both for rational economic reasons and curious psychological ones.
An excellent treatise on the proverb that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.