Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Big One

As you’ve probably heard, today marks the 100th anniversary of the San Francisco earthquake.

This year, the centennial of the great earthquake and fire, it’s impossible to be here without being reminded of that disaster, which still ranks among the worst in American history. Bookstore windows are crowded with new retellings, archives of earthquake photos have been dusted off and tour guides are leading history buffs across town to the surviving landmarks. Visitors who immerse themselves in 1906 history might think San Franciscans are lucky there’s a still city here at all.


It’s estimated that 3,000 to 5,000 people died in the earthquake and fire, although for many years the city put the number at 674 because too high a death toll might scare away rebuilding money. (For the same reason, nobody counted the thousands who succumbed to smallpox, typhoid or bubonic plague in the following months.) Most of the survivors were homeless, collecting in parks with whatever they had thought to save — photo albums and caged parrots, among other things.

The period that followed was captured by dozens of photographers — including hobbyists with new mass-market Kodak Brownies — who recorded the leaning houses and smoke-filled skies. About 100 of these sepia-toned photographs and glass lantern slides are collected in the exhibit “1906 Earthquake: A Disaster in Pictures” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Women in hats the size of carriage wheels primp before a skyline of burning buildings. Members of the Phelps family, smartly dressed in high collars and pressed skirts, pose outside their refugee tent with their pet parrot. A congregation that lost its church to fire kneels in the grass. The show captures both the destruction of the city and the indestructibility of its residents.

Click here for a map and slide show. There’s also an excellent recounting of the events in Walter Lord’s book The Good Years.

After the quake there were people who said the city shouldn’t be rebuilt, much the same as what some people said about New Orleans after Katrina. It’s a good thing that we didn’t listen to them then, and we shouldn’t now.