The economic discourse around seismic enlightenment


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The fireman’s commission, on the thirtieth anniversary of the temblor, published a report assessing the structural progress made since the 1906 earthquake. “The lessons of 1906 were speedily forgotten. Public apathy, an aversion to admitting that earthquakes occur in California, and the desire of building construction speculators to build for profit, combined gradually to prevail over the counsel of engineers” (115). The 1906 earthquake left at least 3,000 dead – but did little in the way of encouraging structural change. It was only after experiencing more earthquakes in the 20s and the 30s that Californians began to accept their precarious geography. It was only then understood that “Economic development depended on open recognition of earthquake risk.”

In this course we have talked extensively about who shapes the perception and narratives of disaster. And in the case of the 1906 “fire”, Steinberg argues that business elites and politicians fueled by their economic interests shaped the discourse. At the time of the temblor, San Francisco was developing into a banking hub and already led the West in trade and manufacturing. As a result, the economic elite cried “fire” rather than “earthquake” – seemingly positing the disaster as nothing more than a freak accident. Business leaders assumed indifference to the damages of the earthquake calamites in order to ensure continued investment in the city. However, Steinberg was quick to point out that the earthquake did in fact cause tremendous damage, pointing to the fact that the quake damaged 95% of the chimneys in San Francisco. Steinberg reports that in all, the jolt was responsible for 20% of the damage. (However, Steinberg does a good job of explaining the difficulties of classifying the fire and the quake as two separate occurrences.) Yet at the time, the quake was understood as “a little shake in the earth’s crust. . .constitu[ing] no real source of danger.”

This reminds me of some of the responses to Galveston Hurricane. Leaders of the city initially resisted the idea of constructing a sea wall. For although Progressive prudence encouraged its construction, building the massive wall meant that the city had to recognize that it was in a dangerous location.

Steinberg concludes his argument talking the modern implications to this disaster surrounding social justice. The 1989 jolt encouraged improvements in earthquake resistant construction – but these advancements have not yet reached the more marginalized citizens.  Jean concludes her post with an important question, “has the legislation constructed in the wake of disaster been beneficial to all classes in society (outside of economic benefits)?” For while it is true that there is “no safe place”, Steinberg argues that real estate cartel continues to quell the seismic enlightenment in favor of profit. “The idea of no inconveniencing someone – but allowing them to be killed, well, things seem to be upside down.”

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