Public Safety and Economic Success


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The San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 erupted during a period of economic success for the West. As a hub of a new economy, after the earthquake struck, businessmen looked to suppress the damage as to not to dissuade investors in San Francisco’s economy. Ted Steinberg makes the argument that businessmen alike looked to pawn the disaster on the fire that followed the earthquake. If the earthquake was seen as the sole cause for the destruction, people would move out and stay out of the city. The battle over suppressing the event as Sherwood Callaway points out in his discussion of preserving San Francisco’s reputation as a center for economic activity. “And at nothing did they work harder than shaping the way the calamity would be understood” (105), the way disaster was interpreted was critical for big businessmen during the turn of the century.

However, in the discussion on economic growth in the wake of disaster, Steinberg claims that even though there was financial success and prosperity, because the disaster was interpreted as a cause of fire and not an earthquake the laws and regulations were unchanged which ultimately hurt the city of San Francisco. As seen in later earthquakes that hit the city, with the unregulated buildings that were constructed only created more devastation in isolated earthquakes. In the later part of his argument, Steinberg addresses an important issue that is essential to the discussion of relief/recovery efforts in the wake of earthquakes. The most recent idea of retrofitting San Francisco and how that effects the city. Within the retrofitting debate, Steinberg questions the role of class structure in society. He does so by addressing Kathleen Harrington (president of property-owners’ group) who argues balancing costs in lieu of safety measures. Steinberg openly disagrees with her statement and notices that the lives of those living in the areas of highest risk of destruction are those of the lower classes and of minority race. “…it seems almost certain that it will be the poor and people of color who will suffer the most in the coming earthquake” (121), these are the same people that were the most effected by the earthquake of 1906 and the ones who were not accounted for in the wake of the disaster. Steinberg brings up an interesting question and one that I too want to pose, has the legislation constructed in the wake of disaster been beneficial to all classes in society (outside of economic benefits )?

 

 

How Capitalism Can Shape Disaster Narratives


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Blog Post 8 (for Thursday, 3/27)

In his article “Smoke and Mirrors,” Ted Steinberg describes a struggle between “those seeking to capitalize on the disaster’s entertainment value against California’s business class” (104). The former hoped to capitalize on peoples’ fascination with disaster by distributing reports, images and videos. One of the videos we watched in class on Tuesday was a dramatic recreation of the San Francisco fire, meant for consumers’ viewing across the country, for example. The latter hoped to preserve San Francisco’s reputation as a center of economic activity, worthy of investment. To that end, they sought to deemphasize the destructive capability of earthquakes in the Bay Area, and emphasize the many opportunities it offered in rebuilding. For example, John Marsh wrote in his blog post: “Rozario quotes a writer for the Times who noted that San Francisco’s natural advantages (its location as a hub of trade for the entire west coast) ensured its recovery.”

During the 19th century we often think of capitalism as driving towards a single, specific goal— perhaps Machiavellian utilitarianism, or just ruthless efficiency? I’m not really sure how to sum it up. But in most narratives, capitalism seems uniformly against something, whether it be workers’ rights, environmental preservation, or something else. In the Johnstown Flood, for example, the poorly maintained dam was symbolic of the lack of concern that capitalists had for their workers, and their disinterest in quality, so long as the job got done. Interestingly enough, the struggle that Steinberg describes demonstrates capitalism at odds with itself— both groups had money on their minds, but their means of acquiring it conflicted. It is apparent that there wasn’t a single way to capitalize on the destruction in San Francisco.

I’m not quite convinced of Steinberg’s argument— or “conspiracy theory”— that the San Francisco earthquake and fire has been memorialized incorrectly because of some scheming businessmen. But this article has merit because it demonstrates how disaster narratives during the 19th century were shaped by the push and pull of economic forces. With two distinct groups struggling to warp the San Francisco earthquake and fire into vastly different stories makes this phenomenon particularly clear.

Too Prepared?


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In class on Tuesday, March 18, we discussed the reactions of the Weather Bureau, taking a primarily critical view of the organization’s actions.  Erik Larson’s view undoubtedly heavily influenced out take on the culpability of the organization and their potential to have prevented many deaths.  I agreed with our assessment of the situation, blaming the nascent organization that was trying to save face for their inaction.

However, in reading a source for my independent research project, Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It, I came across an event that interestingly mirrored that of the 1900 Galveston Hurricane.  In 1976, a flu season occurred that reflected many of the same patterns of the deadly 1918 Influenza that killed around 50 million people worldwide. The Centers for Disease Control and the US government jumped into action, commencing a nationwide vaccination campaign to protect the entire country.  This is exactly what the Weather Bureau did not do, looking at a potential threat and acting upon it to protect the population.  This is the criticism that I gave the Weather Bureau, but the Swine Flu Scare of 1976 turned out very differently than expected.  Millions were spent and millions were vaccinated, but the expected pandemic never came.  The federal government came under intense criticism for jumping the gun, so to speak, and the CDC lost credibility.  This is what the Weather Bureau was preventing by not forecasting a storm, and what the leadership was trying to prevent in banning the use of the words ‘hurricane’ and ‘tornado.’  While I’m not excusing the failure of the Weather Bureau, I think the 1976 Swine Flu Scare serves as a helpful counterpoint to our critiques, explaining, although not excusing, the actions of the Weather Bureau in the 1900 Galveston Hurricane.

This argument contradicts that of Jean, although she does make a convincing argument.  Planning is key in disaster awareness and management.  However, can you ‘cry wolf’ one too many times, leaving the population exposed when a disaster is indeed imminent?  I don’t know how to fix the problem, but it is exemplified by the two exemplars portrayed in Isaac’s Storm and Flu.

Distinctions between Blame and Responsibility in Fradkin’s The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906


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From his title alone—The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself—we can identify one of Fradkin’s main arguments: much of the damage wrought during the earthquake and firestorms was self-inflicted by those in charge in San Francisco.  Fradkin identifies a number of different ways the leadership in San Francisco failed those it served. 300 distribution mains and 23,200 connecting pipes that spread water throughout the town were fractured, so firemen could not extinguish the fires with water (72).  Firemen, instead of miners who had experience with explosives, tried (and failed) to fight fire with fire (76).  Acting Commander Funston marched troops into the town with no orders to do so, leading civilians to believe they were under Marshall law and to an unclear chain of command (63).  Mayor Schmitz ordered that all looters be shot on sight since there was no place for a prison (67).

Fradkin clearly conveys to his readers that these would have been avoidable occurrences had there been better preparation for earthquakes and fires, fewer class/language barriers, and more communication between government and people. However, the tone of this article is much more understanding and forgiving than narratives we have recently read about the Galveston Hurricane, which as Jeremiah points out implied a degree of hubris that I now associate with most Gilded Age disasters.  While Fradkin notes that other towns looked down on San Francisco as being a “sinful city,” he does so in a remarkably objective manner, citing a poem advertising a whisky store which made light of the city’s poor reputation (171).  He also tempers the argument that damage was self-inflicted with a counterargument that several aspects of the 1906 San Francisco fire were competently dealt with.  Navy Lieutenant Frederick N. Freeman, Fradkin argues, saved the waterfront of San Francisco, providing a safe supply line for relief to enter the city (172).

I think Fradkin uses this disaster to separate blame from institutional and cultural disparities.  For example, he does not blame any group or individual for the tragic inequality of experience felt by members of the clubs and inhabitants of Chinatown.  Instead, Fradkin points to the commonalities between the two cultures in claiming that both sought places to worship.  Although Fradkin points to racism, he often does so in the passive voice: “Few Asians were counted as victims.  It was as if they did not exist” (110-111).  Although I’m not sure whether or not I agree that we should separate blame from institutional and cultural disparities, I think this text is distinct from others we have read thus far.

Saving a sinking ship


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Patricia Bixel draws some interesting points in her discussion of the rebuilding of Galveston following the massive hurricane of 1900. The barrier island on which the city lays, “while magical places, are not necessarily appropriate for major human habitation.” I couldn’t agree more. However, it’s incredibly difficult to deny the draw of places like Galveston. While I’ve never been, I’ve experience other barrier islands like Key West, Hilton Head, and Topsail. So, I can understand why the citizens of Galveston were willing to fork over a substantial amount of money to “save” the city.

The methods chosen to save the city are worthy of the ultimate praise. While I’m no engineer, I can imagine that the construction of the sea wall, elevating an entire city, and dredging the bay were incredible feats. Notwithstanding these improvements were done over a century ago without modern technology that would make the process much simpler. As I was reading Bixel’s work, I thought that maybe the sea wall would be a little overkill and not building the wall would save the citizens some money. On many other islands, the protective measures taken do not include a concrete sea wall. The dunes act as a protective barrier and compliment the buildings being elevated on stilts. However, Galveston’s unique position being so close to sea level required that more drastic measures be taken. Bixel points out that without the sea wall, the sand used to elevate the city would simply wash away. Without elevating the city, the sea wall only protects against the blunt force of the waves, but would still permit flooding. These two measures work in conjunction to protect the city against further devastation. As proof of their effectiveness, Galveston witnessed another powerful storm in 1915 that caused much less damage and loss of life. However, the citizens continued to promote the hubris of the period by rejecting assistance from fellow Americans. This act of defiance was intended to show Galveston’s improvements and the citizen’s solidarity to encourage economic development that the 1900 storm retarded. They might not have been so arrogant, however, had they decided to follow the advice of the French colonel who advocated a battery be built to destroy the hurricane with artillery shells.

While Bixel makes good points, I think she also hampers the effectiveness of her article by briefly throwing in substantial points. Her inclusion of politics could be further enhanced. Yes, the wealthy white took over the cleaning up process and neglected African-Americans and those without substantial means, but how did this affect the rebuilding process? Was this a predecessor to Katrina’s rebuilding with similar consequences and racial tensions? What could have been different if all voices were heard instead of the wealthy businessmen? Maybe she would have to do some speculation, but it could be substantiated speculation with primary sources from people who felt left out. I can speculate that these people were so devastated by the storm’s destruction that they may not have cared as much as Bixel seems to think. These people may have just wanted the city returned back to normalcy and who better to do that than those who built the city? Galveston initially developed because businesses were attracted by the deep bay, so why shouldn’t businesses be in charge of the rebuilding? Playing devil’s advocate, the deprived may have been upset by their lack of voice. They might have complained privately in diaries and letters, or publicly in the newspapers. I don’t know, but I’m not paid the big bucks to write articles either. I would have appreciated a more inclusive picture by Bixel if she’s going to bring these issues up in her article.

Becky, excellent point about Galveston’s future. Love the extra research.

Rebuilding Galveston: Then and Now


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While Galveston never fully regained its premier economic position following the massive destruction of the 1900 hurricane, its efforts to rebuild were extraordinary and reflected both the hubris of the age as well as a a welcomed sense of practicality. The hurricane took the lives of some 6,000 – 8,000 and resulted in property damage amounting to approx. $30 million. Yet despite these tremendous numbers, “there was no public discussion about abandoning the island.”  W.L. Moody  (who interestingly went on to found American National Insurance Company) told a reporter, “There was no question about it, “Galveston will be rebuilt stronger and better than ever before.”

So with this firm conviction city leaders boldly began to seek out ways in which to “eliminate the dangers of disaster.” CRC Member Ike Kempner, also the city treasurer, was primarily considered with ensuring the economic integrity of Galveston following its destruction. Galveston still boasted a large deep-water port, but the threat of another disaster discouraged investors. So while Galveston desperately needed to protect the city from future disasters, it had to do so in a way as not to disclose the city’s precarious geography. “Building a sea wall or taking other precautionary measures seemed to acknowledge the city’s dangerous position, yet without some moves by Galveston leaders to calm fears of future calamity, people would not remain, return, rebuild, or invest.” In that sense, the efforts to rebuild Galveston were as concerned with erecting sea walls and buildings as with reconstructing a new mindset – that while Galveston was an important economic hub, it was also vulnerable to natural disasters. Galveston became the meeting place of Gilded Age hubris and Progressive practicality.  And nowhere was this more evident than in the remarkable construction of the sea wall.  An ambitious undertaking to say the least, the sea wall was constructed “with great faith in modern technology and an equal resolve to remain on an unprotected sandbar.”

The seawall still protects the city of Galveston today. It extends almost ten miles along the Gulf of Mexico Side of Galveston, protecting nearly one-third of the beachfront. However the seawall resulted in some unforeseen consequences, like the erosion of the beach in front of the wall. Resultantly, the city must actively engage in “beach renourishment” – in which sand is dredged and brought to the shore.  But in 2011 Rice University released a study suggesting that the environmental and economical costs of dredging are so tremendous that in the event of a future hurricane – Galveston should not rebuild some of its coasts. It’s been over one hundred years since the hurricane and we’re still recovering.

Blame it on the Weatherman


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At the turn of the century (1900), a detrimental hurricane hit Galveston, Texas. Galveston was experiencing a period of substantial growth and success, after hurricane hit, the city was devastated.

As we discussed in class last week about the effectiveness of a narrative history story, Isaac’s Storm can be categorized as such because the book its self is neither history or science but a combination of the two. Most of the book is an account given by Cline himself, as well as descriptions by survivors of the hurricane. The impact that not putting citations within in the text but at the end is effective because it keeps the flow of the novel. This novel allows the reader to envision what it would be like to live through a category 5 hurricane, Larson is able to show the reader the trust that the public placed in upper level officials, and weather technology and how we still do this today.  After reading this novel it made me realize the truth how reliant I am on technology. At night I will check weather.com to see what the upcoming forecast looks like and plan accordingly.  I know that I am one of millions who rely on today’s technology, be it on the phone or the computer. The irony of this, for example, in New York  the amount of times the “weathermen” have predicted a snowstorm that will produce ten inches of snow, however, the next morning when you get up it has only snowed a few inches and the sun is shining (even though the night before people were in hysterics). But every time it seems to go the same. However, as my waryness of techonolgy holds the is the old saying, “better safe then sorry”.

This very idea goes along with what people could have been feeling in Gaveston, Texas. Peoples trust or distrust with the idea of a meteorologist has ultimately impacted their lives. Ignorance is something that caused hundreds and maybe even thousands their lives. The idea of religion and how it effected the preparedness and thoughts of people during this period. Similar to the mention in AJ’s post that meteorology as a science was still seen as controversial, most people still believed that the weather was God’s own will and therefore should not be forecasted. So how does one prepare for what they deem to be enviable?

Similar to the other posts and addressing the central question of how the Galveston hurricane shaped American ideas about disaster preparedness, I found that while reading this novel what came to mind was a quote originally said by John Wooden, “failing to prepare is preparing to fail”. This quote can be applied to most of the disasters we have studied thus far. It holds true in the essence that because of the lack of preparation whether in Galveston, Texas or Chicago, for a large scale natural disaster can cost the lives of many and the overall destruction of a city’s infrastructure.

 

Isaac’s, Stockman’s, Dunwoody’s, and Moore’s Storm


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AJ, as Catherine notes, does a good job at placing the Galveston Hurricane in a larger historical context and understanding its larger significance by arguing, “The era that this event occurred in, the way people went about handling the situation and the eventual misjudged outcome, I believe explains a lot about where disaster preparedness was at the time and showed Americans what desperately needed to change.” In doing so he defends, Isaac, who Catherine once again rightly paints as the books antagonist, by understanding the Hurricane’s human toll as largely resultant of the age rather than the actions of a few individuals. It is also a departure from what I understood to be an argument of Larson’s book; that the extent of the destruction can largely be attributable to issues born from individual decisions, namely those of Isaac Cline, William Stockman, H.C.C. Dunwoody, and Willis Moore. This is well evidenced in Larson’s desire to draw attention to the truthfulness of Isaac’s story concerning the his role in the warning of the hurricane; on page 168 and 169 he discusses how the inconsistencies between Isaac’s claim that his warnings saved the lives of over 6000 people and the possibility that he didn’t actually warn anyone (and even if he had it wouldn’t have saved 6000 lives). In drawing attention to these inconsistencies, he seems to be using the book as a platform to attack the common historical narrative, a narrative that the weather bureau, as the authority on storms, no doubt played a large role in shaping after the hurricane, and to furthermore place some of the blame onto the individuals who he believed to be disproportionately culpable for the massive losses of human life and destruction. This is also evidenced in the way that he constantly discusses the ways in which Morris’ desire for control, Dunwoody’s careerism, and Stockman’s hubris played in creating a society so vulnerable to disaster. While this desire to attribute personal guilt can be seen as a push back against a narrative that largely painted the disaster as a largely unavoidable societal failing and a call for reform, I believe we must additionally understand it as a product of Larson’s writing style. As was discussed in class and as I discussed in my blog post last week, McCullough’s ability to discuss characters without a disproportionate amount of attention paid to each one helped us, or at least me, to understand the Johnstown flood as a product of societal shortcomings. Conversely, Larson constructs his narrative around the thread of Isaac Cline’s life (going so far as to title his book Isaac’s storm, which in itself implies guilt). This narrative style, which puts such a large focus on one character as a sort of case study, seems to be predisposed by framing more individual guilt than a style, such as McCullough’s, which pays such even attention to such a multitude of characters.

Lack of Preparedness and the Hubris of Men


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After reading A.J.’s post, I think he correctly identifies preparedness as being one of the most important issues regarding this disaster. Like the Johnstown Flood, the Galveston Hurricane seemed to have caught its victims by surprise. Due to the shoddy forecasting ability of meteorologists in this period, the citizens of Galveston were shocked by the storm’s devastation. Similar to the citizens of Johnstown, the Galveston residents mistakenly diagnosed the flooding as a normal occurrence. The stories of children playing in the floodwaters and the general feeling of a business as usual atmosphere are similar in both disasters.

The notion of preparedness will probably be a topic that we discuss extensively in class tomorrow. Clearly, Galveston was not prepared for the hurricane in 1900. One of the most obvious reasons is the lack of viable information about the impending storm. According to the experts, this storm was supposed to move north rather than northeast towards Texas. Only later would they acknowledge that the storm was headed towards Texas, but still insisted that the storm would not be much to worry about. The lack of information coupled with what Larson calls, “the hubris of men” made this massive storm even more deadly.

Larson’s notion of “the hubris of men” is an important idea to analyze. Similar to other disasters that we have studied in class, the Galveston Hurricane featured men that believed they had conquered nature and were summarily reminded that they had not. Disregard for the power of nature seems to be a reoccurring theme during this period. The Galveston Hurricane served as a wake up call of sorts for these men. After the hurricane a seawall was built and engineers raised the height of the city with jacks. The Galveston Hurricane made it clear that man had not conquered nature.

Finally, I want to comment on why Isaac Cline is given possession of this storm by Larson. It seems ambiguous while reading Isaac’s Storm as to whether Isaac is being blamed for the storm or is being defended. Larson points out that Cline may have saved thousands of lives by warning residents of houses near the gulf that a storm was coming. Conversely, Larson details how Cline ignored the signs the storm presented and chose to minimize its severity. Rather than condemning or praising Isaac Cline, Larson seems to want,” to explore the lives of history’s little men.”  The phrase “history’s little men” would obviously hurt the feelings of the far-from modest Isaac Cline, but helps readers to understand why Larson chose to frame the Galveston Hurricane around Isaac Cline.

Ignorance is Definitely not Bliss


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Overall, I liked Larson’s account of the Galveston Hurricane. It was an easy read, and it definitely adds to the historical study of the event by way of using first-hand accounts of the hurricane.

Looking back at what the people thought about the likelihood of a storm through the lens of seeing news about many Gulf Coast hurricanes in my lifetime, I am shocked by everybody’s lack of acknowledgment of potential danger. Price talked about how the people of Johnstown acknowledged the threat of flood, even if they did not properly prepare for the flood. In Galveston, however, the people did not even acknowledge the potential for a storm, which led to greater loss. It surprised me that they thought of the gulf as a warm lake rather than an ocean. Even though the Cubans were 100 percent accurate about the hurricane, the National Weather Service did not even take the slightest bit of stock in them, thinking that they were concerned enough about science. It also surprises me that it was illegal for Isaac to call the hurricane warning, as he was trying to save lives when he did so.

The city did learn quickly from this disaster, building a huge storm surge wall and elevating the city, but this one disaster put them forever behind in a race with Houston to become the greatest gulf city, and we see the effects of that result today. Houston continues to be one of the fastest growing cities in the United States, while Galveston is a dwindling port city. The hurricane drastically hindered the city’s course of growth, as people looked to Houston more and more to invest.