On April 18, 1906, many of the people in the San Francisco, California area were sound asleep in their beds. It was, after all, 5:13am. Suddenly, the people were jolted awake by an earthquake, which was estimated to be close to 8.0 on the Richter scale. When the quake struck San Francisco, California, it toppled numerous buildings. The cause of the quake was a slip of the San Andreas Fault over a segment about 275 miles long. The resulting shock waves could be felt from southern Oregon down to Los Angeles.
At that time, San Francisco’s had a variety of brick buildings and wooden Victorian structures that were not really earthquake reinforced. Nobody knew about making buildings strong enough to resist destruction from an earthquake. It was one of the things we would learn from the results of a disaster. It seems that with each disaster, we learn how to prevent the loss of so many buildings and lives. The old buildings were devastated. Along with the collapsed buildings, came devastating fires, and because many of the water mains had broken, firefighters were prevented from stopping the fires. Firestorms soon developed citywide. US Army troops from Fort Mason reported to the Hall of Justice around 7am, and San Francisco Mayor E.E. Schmitz set a dusk-to-dawn curfew and authorized soldiers to shoot to kill anyone found looting. Disasters like these always seem to bring out the worst in people, even those who might not have done such things under normal circumstances.
As significant aftershocks continued, firefighters and US troops fought desperately to control the ongoing fires. Sadly, that sometimes meant dynamiting whole city blocks to create firewalls. Many people were trapped where they were, because the fires prevented their escape, even though they were not stuck in a collapsed building. Finally, on April 20th, several thousands of refugees were evacuated from the foot of Van Ness Avenue. The army would eventually house 20,000 refugees in more than 20 military-style tent camps across the city. The people had no idea how long they might have to be there.
Most of the fires were extinguished by April 23rd, and the authorities started the task of rebuilding the devastated city. In all, approximately 3,000 people lost their lives as a result of the Great San Francisco Earthquake and the devastating fires it inflicted upon the city. Almost 30,000 buildings were destroyed, including most of the city’s homes and nearly all the central business district. The rebuilding would take a long time, and the new structures were reinforced to be able to better withstand the shaking of the San Andreas fault. This quake may not have been the “Big One” that is predicted, but at an estimated 7.9 or 8.0, it was right up there.
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