By Przemek Chylinski
Early morning April 18, 1906, a violent shaking roused San Francisco’s population from their beds. The 40–second tremor moved furniture, shattered glass, and toppled chimneys. The shaking paused for 10 seconds, renewing with another stronger tremor for 25 more seconds. Then it was over. Pandemonium ensued: streets filled with stunned residents, cries rang out from injured and trapped victims, and many believed the end of the world had come.
The earthquake was estimated at between 7.8 and 8.3 magnitude, resulted from the North American and Pacific tectonic plates moving past each other by more than 15 feet (annual average is two inches).
The 1906 earthquake:
- ranks as one of the worst natural disasters in US history and one of the most significant earthquakes of all times.
- affected 375,000 square miles, half of which were in the Pacific Ocean.
- ruptured the ground surface along the San Andreas Fault for about 290 miles; the 1989 Loma Prieta quake ruptured about 25 miles.
- shifted the ground at an estimated 4 to 5 feet per second, while the rupture traveled at about 5,900 miles per hour.
- caused 24 feet of lateral surface slippage near Point Reyes Station.
- devastated northern California areas including Santa Rosa, San Jose, and Santa Cruz.
- caused estimated property damage of $400 million, or more than $8 billion in today’s dollars.
- was the world’s first major natural disaster to have its effects recorded by photography.
After the earthquake:
- over 225,000 of the city’s 400,000 residents were homeless.
- fires destroyed about 28,000 buildings and 500 blocks – ¼ of San Francisco.
- in the first 19 months, San Francisco spent $90 million on reconstruction.
- fires burned for three days and three nights; some were as hot as 2,700°F. The fires were more catastrophic than the earthquake itself.
- the Navy contributed to putting out fires by running water lines and providing water to the city’s fire department for their steam engines.
- a San Franciscan cooking breakfast on a stove whose chimney was damaged during the quake, started the 24-hour-long “ham and eggs fire” which destroyed a 30-block area, including parts of City Hall and Market Street.
- San Francisco received approximately $9 million in relief from individuals, cities, states, the federal government, and other countries.
- city officials attempted to permanently relocate Chinatown in order to seize its valuable real estate, but failed.
- the San Francisco Red Cross and Relief Corporation and the Army were the primary relief administrators.
- the Army – which ran 21 official refugee camps – distributed food, clothing, and other necessities to quake victims.
- the Rossi Forel Scale – one of the first to measure earthquakes using a “1 to 10” format– gave the 1906 earthquake a 9 rating.