The Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake


The paper will be 7-9 pages and focus on emergency management. The written assignment will be a document discussing a major type of natural or technological hazard that has taken place or is likely to occur in the United States, and possible mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.


Name of Student

Name of Professor

Emergency Management Paper

10 November 2015.

The Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

            The Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake occurred on April 18, 1906. It is among the most devastating earthquakes to have hit the world in modern times. The earthquake was followed by massive fires that caused devastation across San Francisco, California. Over 3000 people died in the aftermath of the earthquake and the fires in addition to destroying more than 28000 buildings. The earthquake was felt as far as Southern Oregon, central Nevada, and Los Angeles. Most of the devastation was caused by fires that struck immediately after the quake. The water supply of the city had been destroyed by initial tremors, leaving firefighters with no effective means of dealing with the fire (Scawthorn, O’Rourke and Blackburn 137). Consequently, the fire continued for several days, destroying much of the city. In addition to the death and destruction, the earthquake and fires left over 250000 residents of San Francisco homeless (Fradkin 179).


            Earthquakes occur due to the sudden breaking of rock underground along a fault, leading to the sudden release of energy that triggers seismic waves. These waves cause the ground to shake, thereby causing destruction. The specific location where the rock breaks is known as the earthquake’s focus while the ground right above this focus is known as the earthquake’s epicenter. Earthquakes are different from other natural disasters because there is usually no warning. In the case of other natural hazards, for example tsunamis, hurricanes, and lava flows, people tend to have several minutes, sometimes days, to take precautionary measures. This means that in the case of an earthquake, people, especially those living in earthquake-prone areas, have to be prepared for this natural hazard at all times.

            San Francisco, and indeed the entire Northern California, is an earthquake-prone region. Despite this awareness, the people of this city were ill-prepared for the earthquake. An even stronger warning had been provided in the form of numerous small earthquakes as well as six fires that had previously destroyed portions of the city. It was saddening how the city did not prepare for the possibility of a massive earthquake followed by a huge fire. Yet the city held a lot of significance to the entire West. Before the earthquake, San Francisco was the largest city in the West and the commercial hub of this region. Many of the city’s urban satellites as well as the outlying suburban areas were shaken, damaged, and then consumed by the raging fire. Considering the high economic, political, and social stakes that the city presented for the region and by extension America as a country, it is saddening that proper mitigation efforts had not been put in place.

Construction of buildings and housing planning had been ongoing in a haphazard manner since the Gold Rush of the 1850s. Residents of the city had ignored a short history full of natural disasters. Numerous buildings were poorly constructed on the edge of the peninsula. Not only were these buildings fire-prone, escaping from them in the event of fire was tenuous. City planning authorities ignored the fact that San Francisco was straddled by two major faults: the San Andres on the western side and the Hayward on the Eastern side.


            Although the earthquake itself was a major disaster and contributed to the worsening situation in the city, most of the deaths and destruction occurred during the three days of fire (Scawthorn, Eidinger and Schiff 11). In fact, San Francisco was extremely lucky; the earthquake struck during early morning hours when inner urban areas were not crowded with workers, students, and shoppers. If the earthquake had struck during busy morning hours, casualty numbers would not have been in thousands but rather tens of thousands. Following the earthquake, civil liberties were greatly curtailed, and this significantly hindered mitigation efforts. For example, military officers and firefighters used explosives such as dynamite recklessly, leading to even more destruction and death.

            Preparedness plays a crucial role in reducing the level of destruction resulting from an earthquake. Since it is impossible to tell when an earthquake will occur, the best thing is to focus on preparedness. For example, people should build structures that can withstand the shaking that accompanies the earthquakes. Moreover, efforts should be made to reduce the vulnerability of water supply systems following an earthquake (Scawthorn, O’Rourke and Blackburn 137). This can be done by ensuring that water piping connections do not run across fault lines as was the case in San Francisco prior to the occurrence of the 1906 earthquake.

            In San Francisco, there was every reason for the element of preparedness to be enhanced if history was anything to go by.  For example, scientists had for a long time claimed that during the mid-seventeenth century, a huge earthquake had rippled across northern California and the Pacific Northwest. The main reason why this earthquake did not destroy San Francisco as well as what later came to be known as Seattle was that the structures were small and rather flexible. Moreover, the region was sparsely populated. When the Mexican and the Spanish migrated into the region, they too experienced earthquakes. In fact, earthquakes were responsible for the physical decline of most structures of European derivation in California. Since 1800, a number of earthquakes were also reported, including one that killed 40 Indians while attending mass (Fradkin 9). Another earthquake whose shaking power was estimated to be similar to the one that occurred in 1906 was reported in 1838 in Yerba Buena, whose name was shortly changed to San Francisco. Similarly, three fires had plagued San Francisco since the gold rush of the 1850s. Consequently, there was a certain level of laxity on the part of San Franciscans in terms of preparedness. Therefore, it is not surprising that the level of death and devastation of the Great Earthquake of 1906 could have been reduced through preventive mechanisms.

Response to the disaster was poor but the rate of recovery was excellent. The disaster had a major impact on medical facilities in the city. Nevertheless, efforts were made to evacuate the injured, who were quickly rushed to nearby health facilities that had remained relatively undestroyed. Within no time, congestion in these hospitals became a serious problem. Moreover, homelessness had suddenly become a major problem; over 250000 had become homeless and needed immediate assistance. This necessitated the setting up of outdoor kitchens and camps. A state of civic chaos transpired during the first three days following the earthquake. The U.S. military took over the task of providing food, sanitation, shelter, and clothing to the city’s newly homeless and destitute population.

An appraisal of events following the earthquake and the fires creates the impression that response to the disaster was swift, forceful, and in some ways reckless. Military officials adopted a dictatorial approach to problem-solving, and this profoundly hampered efforts to mobilize different agencies as well as the civilians themselves towards efforts to put in place appropriate responses. Another major problem with response to the disaster was that as fires continued to destroy the city, relief efforts started to be made in a manner that emphasized the preexisting social differences. No significant efforts were made by citizens to break down social barriers. Consequently, the outcome had long-term consequences for the future of San Franciscans. While 250,000 residents rushed by flee the city by all possible means, including by car, train, ferry, and foot, about 100,000 of the remained. American National Red Cross arrived and started providing briefs on rapid recovery. Unfortunately, the criteria for relief housing and funding tended to perpetuate differences between property owners and non-property owners. Racial discrimination was also a major challenge. For example, many Chinese survivors were denied assistance. In other words, the social status that existed in the pre-disaster days was being perpetuated even in times of disaster. Thus, it seems that relief agencies failed terribly in their responsibility to prioritize their limited resources to ensure that they saved as many lives as possible.

            Disaster relief had a critical role to play in the future of San Francisco because the earthquake as well as the raging fires had destroyed both private and public property. Following the destruction of the private-public boundary, domestic life was pushed into public space. Policy makers gained unrestrained access to the private aspects of relief-seekers’ lives since they had pitched tents in public parks and their makeshift kitchen stoves were situated on city streets. Fear of social disorder was rife, and this may have greatly contributed to the concerted efforts that authorities made to rebuild San Francisco’s urban landscape.

            In between a positive appraisal and criticism of response to the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake is a complex disaster story. For example, the military has been accused of indiscriminate use of explosives, thereby triggering more fires. At the same time, the military’s efforts to contribute to putting out most of the fires using steam engines as well as supplying water to the fire department have been lauded. Another positive observation in terms of response was that San Francisco received relief worth over $9 million from individuals, states, cities, the federal government, and various countries. The main providers of relief, though, were the military and the San Francisco Red Cross and Relief Corporation. These positive developments were overshadowed by the reality of racial prejudice which led to a regrettable situation whereby local leadership and relief agencies prevented Chinese-Americans and Japanese-Americans from accessing the funds that had been donated by their respective nations. Both Japan and China had donated $250000 each towards helping their citizens affected by the disaster in San Francisco.

            Despite the destruction, San Francisco was able to recover from the earthquake. Moreover, the destruction seemed to provide planners with an opportunity to plan a new, improved city. They were able to make amends on the Western boomtown that had grown haphazardly since the start of the Gold rush in 1849. The planners started their work on a nearly clean slate, and this enabled them to come up with an elegant structure. This elaborate planning greatly contributed to the growth of many nearby towns that easily accommodated the growing population in San Francisco as well as the influx of migrants from other parts of the United States.


For victims of an earthquake such as the one that hit San Francisco in 1906, recovery means swift restoration of residence, medical care, work, and the reconstruction of the town in its entirety. To achieve these objectives, the participation of the victims themselves is crucial. Ideally, community members should liaise with local entities such as volunteers, non-governmental organizations, and the government with a view to make the recovery efforts more effective. Such an approach leads to the emergence of what may be referred to as community collaborative recovery. One major reason why San Francisco succeeded in terms of recovery was the adoption of community collaborative recovery. For example, within six months, the collaborative efforts had led to the construction of cottages to replace the refugee camps that had been set up in areas such as Golden Gate Park, Fort Point, and Presidio.

            In conclusion, the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake not only caused massive loss of life and destruction, it also forever changed the city of San Francisco. Although earthquakes are unpredictable and unstoppable, there are numerous efforts that can be undertaken in terms of preparedness and mitigation to reduce damage to property and loss of human life. Unfortunately, San Francisco was not prepared for the earthquake and the fires that followed. No significant efforts had been made by the city to enforce the necessary urban planning strategies despite the widespread awareness regarding the frequency of earthquake disasters in the recent past.

Measures such as the enforcement of laws that prohibit the construction of structures that cannot withstand shaking during an earthquake should have been undertaken. Moreover, urban planners at the city should have put in place mechanisms for discouraging a trend of haphazard construction of houses that easily made it virtually impossible for evacuation efforts to be undertaken during a fire breakout. Again, this was unfortunate since it was not the first time for San Francisco to face a fire disaster. Going forward, the mistakes that were made during the earthquake should be used to develop appropriate strategies in terms of preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery.

Works Cited

Fradkin, Philip. The great earthquake and firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco nearly destroyed itself. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. Print.

Scawthorn, C., O’Rourke, T and Blackburn, F. “The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire—Enduring Lessons for Fire Protection and Water Supply.” Earthquake Spectra, 22.2 (2006): 135–158.

Scawthorn, Charles., Eidinger, John and Schiff, Anshel. (Eds.). Fire Following Earthquake. The American Society of Civil Engineers.

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