Thursday, September 08, 2005
Before the Flood
By SIMON WINCHESTER
Published: September 8, 2005
THE last time a great American city was destroyed by a violent caprice of nature, the response was shockingly different from what we have seen in New Orleans. In tone and tempo, residents, government institutions and the nation as a whole responded to the earthquake that brought San Francisco to its knees a century ago in a manner that was well-nigh impeccable, something from which the country was long able to derive a considerable measure of pride.
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This was all the more remarkable for taking place at a time when civilized existence was a far more grueling business, an age bereft of cellphones and Black Hawks and conditioned air, with no Federal Emergency Management Agency to give us a false sense of security and no Weather Channel to tell us what to expect.
Nobody in the "cool gray city of love," as the poet George Sterling called it, had the faintest inkling that anything might go wrong on the early morning of April 18, 1906. Enrico Caruso and John Barrymore - who both happened to be in town - and 400,000 others slumbered on, with only a slight lightening of eggshell-blue in the skies over Oakland and the clank of the first cable cars suggesting the beginning of another ordinary day.
Then at 5:12 a.m. a giant granite hand rose from the California earth and tore through the city. Palaces of brick held up no better than gold-rush shanties of pine and redwood siding; hot chimneys, electric wires and gas pipes toppled, setting a series of fires that, with the water mains broken and the hydrants dry, proceeded over the next three dreadful days and nights to destroy what remained of the imperial city. In the end, at least 3,000 were dead and 225,000 homeless.
Everyone who survived remembered: there was at first a shocked silence; then the screams of the injured; and then, in a score of ways and at a speed that matched the ferocity of the wind-whipped fires, people picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, took