Victims to a fault

7th October 2005 at 01:00
San Francisco had its own Katrina nearly 100 years ago. David Self reads an account of a disaster that contains a rebuke for modern America

A Crack in the Edge of the World: the Great American Earthquake of 1906 By Simon Winchester Viking Penguin pound;16.99

Few authors have the services of such powerful publicists as Katrina and Rita. The recent American hurricanes have given an unexpected topicality to Simon Winchester's account of the San Francisco earthquake and fire, the centenary of which is next year. His book is now not just a historical document but an illuminating analysis of the way western cities cope (or not) with natural disasters.

The earthquake occurred on April 18, 1906 at 5.12am. For storytellers, this is inconvenient; few people were up and about. The human dramas were those of couples being thrown around their bedrooms, a solitary swimmer taking his early morning dip, and the man who had just switched on the underground cables that pull the streetcars up and down the city's streets.

Luckily for Winchester, a number of policemen coming off patrol or starting their shifts left detailed and oddly detached accounts of the quake: "Both Davis and Washington streets opened up in several places," says one. "The buildings around and about me began to tumble and fall and kept me pretty busy for a while dodging bricks." One can't help feeling Constable Cook would have been a disappointment to a present-day television reporter.

The devastation was, in fact, considerable. No fewer than 28,188 buildings were destroyed and at least 600 people killed. Some now estimate that 3,000 lives were lost and the figures were massaged to maintain the city's attraction to investors. Interestingly, the federal government estimated that only between 3 and 10 per cent of the destruction was caused by the quake. It was the subsequent fire, which raged for three days, that was the real destroyer. The concentration of heat was ferocious, razing hundreds of timber-framed buildings with their wall-less rooms packed with sofas and furnishings and upturned barrels of oil. Tales abounded of victims trapped under the wreckage, unable to escape the advancing flames, who were put out of their misery by armed passers-by and policemen.

Some of the most fascinating stories emerged in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Many of the merchants' safes (containing wads of Treasury bills and securities) survived both the quake and the fire. But impatient owners opened them while they were still red-hot and the resulting inrush of oxygen burned the contents and brought financial ruin to many. In contrast, the United States Post Office didn't lose a single piece of mail in its possession at the time of the earthquake. Workers in the city's new post office building kept the flames at bay and, two mornings after the infamous San Andreas Fault had opened (causing the initial quake), it was business as usual. Well, not quite. With no telegraph system working, the city postmaster decreed that private letters need not be stamped so that citizens could "tell their friends and loved ones of their condition and needs".

The combination of earthquake and fire may have been a disaster for the city but it was a lifeline for the insurance companies. Many policies provided cover for fire damage but specifically excluded earthquakes and "acts of God". In addition, many people had lost their policies in the disaster and many insurance companies had lost their offices. "Undignified haggling" continued for months over whether fire or earthquake had destroyed a particular building.

Meanwhile, the calamity quickly attracted sightseers and photographers.

Thousands of their images survive, ranging from city panoramas to telling close-ups. It is a shame, then, that the illustrations in the book are so disappointing. Their reproduction on ordinary print pages in monochrome grey robs them of their impact and does little justice to those who took them - or to the author.

For this is a seminal story and one that has been pieced together with obvious care and considerable research. It has one major drawback, however.

The earthquake doesn't happen until page 215. Up to that point it is largely travelogue as Winchester treats us to details of his car trip across the United States to San Francisco, including visits to the hometown of Neil Armstrong, relevant because he was one of the first to view our "fragile" world from a distance; and also to Winslow, Arizona, because, irrelevantly, a meteorite crashed there 50,000 years ago.

We are also provided with a lengthy account of how the "new geology" (concerned with the Earth's interior as well as its surface) was born out of a tradition that goes back to fossil hunters armed only with a hammer and magnifying glass. More useful is a lesson on tectonic plates: the way the continents have drifted around the globe's surface and why there are ructions where plates rub up against each other.

It is, however, the coincidence of the book's publication with the recent hurricanes that gives it a special resonance, particularly in the ways the military and city authorities responded. The first troops left their barracks at 7.15am and, within two or three hours, a new city headquarters had been established (City Hall was a ruin). The Treasury was secured by the military, looting became a capital offence and the sale of liquor was banned. By noon, 1,500 troops were on the streets. By evening, a trainload of supplies had arrived from Los Angeles. The next day, a hospital train arrived from Virginia. So did a US Navy destroyer. Pity poor New Orleans, 99 years later.

In the midst of this aid programme, God was quickly exonerated. It became "unpatriotic" to blame the earthquake for the city's suffering. "A singular effort" was launched to explain it was the result of fire, which had been caused by greed, carelessness and neglect, and that "things could be bettered by a simple act of common will."

That may have encouraged the stock markets. Geologists were furious. What they, the "new geologists" and indeed Simon Winchester want us to learn is that our actions in this world require the planet's consent.

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