Natural and Man-Made Disasters


How disastrous was the San Francisco earthquake?

The quake of 1906 struck at 5:12 A.M. on April 18, and registered 8.3 on the Richter scale. Twenty seconds of trembling were followed by 45 to 60 seconds of shocks. The quake cracked water and gas mains, which resulted in a fire that lasted three days and destroyed two-thirds of the city. The destruction and loss of lives were great: As many as 3,000 (of San Francisco’s 400,000 people) were killed; the entire business district was demolished; three out of five homes had either crumbled or burned; 250,000 to 300,000 people were left homeless; and 490 city blocks were destroyed.

The quake was a milestone for American journalism: The offices of the city’s newspapers, the Examiner (owned by William Randolph Hearst; 1863–1951), the Call, and the Chronicle had all burned. But the first day after the disaster, the three papers joined forces across the bay in Oakland to print a combined edition, the California Chronicle-Examiner. Across the country, Will Irwin (1873–1948) of the New York Sun, who had been a reporter and editor at the San Francisco Chronicle from 1900 to 1904, wrote a story titled “The City That Was,” which he completed from memory alone. It was picked up by papers around the country and became a classic of journalism. The San Francisco tragedy demonstrated the newfound ability of the American press to create an instant national story out of a local event.

The Bay Area was hit again by a sizeable quake in 1989. As millions tuned in to watch the World Series at Candlestick Park outside San Francisco, the TV cameras began to shake. Because of media coverage of the baseball game, the earthquake had literally been broadcast live around the world. Once again, fires resulted from broken gas mains, and the damage was extensive. The so-called Loma Pietra quake registered 7.1 on the Richter scale, claimed 67 lives, and damaged $15 billion worth of property. San Francisco’s Marina District was particularly hard hit—at least in part due to the fact that the area was built largely on landfill, including debris from the 1906 quake. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 remains the worst to ever hit an American city.

People on Sacramento Street, in San Francisco, watch smoke rise from fires after a severe earthquake hit the city in 1906.

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