A Faulty Fire (1906 San Francisco Earthquake & Fire)

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            On April 18, 1906 around 5:15 am San Francisco was hit with a violent earthquake.  Following the earthquake was a great fire, the fire continued to burn the city for four days. Hundreds of people trapped in buildings were unable to escape. The disaster was a rupture of the San Andreas Fault, which had an epicenter near San Francisco. The severity of the earthquake was measured as an 8.25 on the Richter scale. However, aside from the earthquake itself what added to the destruction of the city was the fire that the earthquake ignited.  The destruction totaled over $350 million in damages, demolishing 25,000 buildings and killing hundreds and leaving 250,000 homeless. In the wake of this disaster much chaos ensued and crime became a large problem as a result. Crime and panic became such an issue that the Mayor gave a “Shoot-to-Kill” order for people who were found looting or involved in any unlawful acts.

         When looking to analyze the San Francisco earthquake and fire, we must ask a few questions to gain a better understanding of the situation. Response and relief efforts are always an aspect of how we measure the destruction of the disaster, so how did people react to the effects of the earthquake end the fire? Upper level officials are looked upon as leaders in events such as this, how did these officials organize and lead the people after the earthquake and fire? Another important question that can be looked at when analyzing the disaster, is how often did earthquakes occur in this region prior to April of 1906? By understanding this we can see how engineering of the city was tailored to the threats of earthquakes and after the earthquake of 1906 we can then ask, what were the major faults of building planning that led to greater ruin? Finally, while both the earthquake and the fire were natural disasters, were there ways in which the effects of the disaster could have been prevented? If so can we place blame on any person or group?

           The types of primary sources that would enable me to answer these questions include document statements released by political leaders such as the Mayor or Chief Police, as mentioned earlier I can further examine the Mayor’s “Shoot-to-Kill” order and what that meant to the city. Primary sources that can be looked at are any written personal eyewitness accounts of the event, a journal or a diary. Regarding the questions about crime, a primary source that could help to answer the questions would be any written police reports. On the Davidson College library account, there is a link that brings you to research guides and has access to newspapers of major cities dating back to the late 17th century. These newspapers can provide information to the reactions of the people and response efforts.