“Seismic Denial’s” Ripple Effect


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A theme common to both Steingburg and Davis’s articles is the role of man in both causing and intensifying the effects of natural disasters.  In “Smoke and Mirrors: the San Francisco Earthquake and Seismic Denial,” Steinberg argues that the alliance between California’s business class and politicians served to redefine the San Franciscan earthquake of 1906 by placing the blame for the majority of the destruction on the ensuing fire.  As nakindig discussed in his post, this “seismic denial” was a common boosters, who popularized it in an effort to protect San Francisco’s image. In order to describe the effects of this “seismic denial,” Steinburg articulates the immediate changes in building codes after the 1906 earthquake and the subsequent easing of the building codes in later years. He argues that “such lenience stemmed directly form the conspiracy of seismic silence that remained a major preoccupation of San Francisco’s business community well into the 1920s” (Steinberg 112). Steinberg’s use of the word “conspiracy” reinforces his argument that the blame for much of the damage in later earthquakes should be placed squarely on the shoulders of man.

Steinberg also pulls in a class-power argument through his discussion of how “pyrotechnics of property destruction have eclipsed the truly deadly story”- that is, the unequal distribution of the earthquake’s damage on the population of San Francisco. Steinberg emphasizes that the poor and ethnic populations were more affected by the earthquake and likewise, more impacted by the “seismic denial.” The decision to undermine the role of the earthquake  in the decimation of San Francisco is responsible for the loss of even more lives (Steinberg 121).  This argument suggests that until building codes and other necessary preventatives were standardized and updated, deaths resulting from post-1906 earthquakes are essentially the responsibility of man and not nature.