San Francisco Earthquake

This review appeared in the Sunday Times on 9 October 2005

Simon Winchester, A Crack in the Edge of the World: The Great American Earthquake of 1906, Viking, £16.99, pp. 412

Like many of the world’s worst natural disasters, the San Francisco earthquake struck in the early hours of the morning. At 5:12 a.m. on Wednesday 18 April 1906, a seized-up section of the San Andreas Fault suddenly dislodged itself by several metres, triggering a minute-long earthquake registering 7.9 on the soon-to-be-invented Richter scale. The damage to San Francisco was extraordinary: entire blocks of solid-seeming buildings were shaken to the ground, while the fires which had broken out amid the 2,600 acres of ruins raged uncontrollably for the next three days, the earthquake having disabled most of the city’s water supply. When the fires eventually put themselves out, having nothing flammable left to consume, the pall of smoke cleared slowly to reveal a scene of total devastation. More than 28,000 buildings had been destroyed, upwards of 3,000 people had lost their lives, and the once-great capital of the Golden State had been reduced to a heap of blackened rubble.

America was stunned by the scale of the disaster. A famous set of photographs taken from a tethered airship (one of which is reproduced inside the fold-out dust-jacket) shocked the still-young nation with the unprecedented image of an American city in ruins — a spectacle which, as Simon Winchester points out, the United States “had never imagined it might see created within its own domains”. A hundred years later, however, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, that spectacle has returned to haunt America again, and, given the failure of the federal government to respond to the crisis in New Orleans, the efficiency of the response to the 1906 disaster seems even more impressive by comparison. Roosevelt’s war secretary, William Taft (himself the next U.S. president) swung into immediate action, federalising the National Guard with a stroke of the pen, so that they could legally report to the city’s mayor, which by 7 a.m. they had done. A century later, White House officials took nearly a week to issue that same directive, by which time New Orleans had descended into chaos.

Like New Orleans, San Francisco is a city at risk from its topography, built as it was along the San Andreas Fault, the 750-mile buffer zone between the stationary North American plate and the northward-travelling Pacific plate, the eastern edge of which grinds slowly against its continental neighbour, creating regular small earth tremors along much of the California coast. These near-constant mini-quakes remain a source of misplaced reassurance for many Californians who appear to believe, entirely incorrectly, that “The Big One” won’t happen again as long as these little ones keep coming. Winchester’s superb description of the treacherous geology of the San Andreas Fault zone — the “crack in the edge of the world” — makes it clear just how dangerous it really is, yet the region’s inhabitants continue to exhibit a remarkable sang-froid in the face of imminent catastrophe. This is brought home when Winchester visits the little town of Parkfield, 150 miles south of San Francisco, which enjoys the distinction of being the most seismically monitored spot on earth. “The centre of the seismic universe”, Parkfield bristles with machines transmitting real-time fault-zone information all around the world, which is used by geologists in their ongoing attempt to find a reliable means of earthquake prediction. But anyone who imagines that the people of Parkfield might be nervous around all this seismic display should check out the menu at the town’s only hotel (“Sleep here when it happens”, as its sign invites), which features a 10-oz steak called The Big One, a smaller version dubbed the Magnitude Six, and a range of desserts called Aftershocks. It’s very Californian, of course, but it’s also very alarming, given the nation’s apparent lack of disaster preparedness, and the terrifying nature of the fault-zone itself, “a living, breathing, ever-evolving giant that slumbers lightly under the surface of the earth.”

Richard Hamblyn

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