3000 DEAD; $300,000,000 LOST SAN FRANCISCO IS OBLITERATED
The Cincinnati Post used the above headline to announce the destruction of the City of San Francisco in its night edition of Thursday, April 19, 1906. The destruction, unfortunately, had only begun. The earthquake began just after 5 AM on April 18, and was strong enough to be felt in Los Angeles, almost 400 miles to the south. Heavy shaking lasted for almost a full minute, with several violent sudden shocks adding to the tremors. The earthquake was followed by a tsunami which was recorded at the Presidio, but it did little damage because much of what it could have destroyed was already destroyed.
Even as the Cincinnati Post was reporting the damage from the earthquake, San Francisco was exploding, literally, in fires caused mostly by ruptured gas mains, and ruptured water mains prevented the fire department from fighting them. Firemen attempted to use explosives, chiefly dynamite, to create firebreaks by blowing up the remnants of damaged buildings. Their inexperience and lack of proper leadership led to the explosives starting additional fires. The fires created a windstorm as they sucked oxygen from the air, allowing them to leap firebreaks successfully established.
Other fires were started deliberately, as acts of arson committed by property owners who were insured against fire, but not against earthquake damage. Home and business property owners with damaged buildings sought to redress this problem by destroying earthquake damaged properties and the evidence of such, with the knowledge that the fire department could do little to put out the flames. The fire department was without leadership, its chief had been badly hurt in the initial earthquake and later died. Police were too busy trying to assist people trapped in rubble to deal with the arsonists.
Army troops were quickly ordered into the city to assist with security and with rescue efforts. On April 18 the Mayor of San Francisco authorized the Army and the city police and auxiliaries to shoot looters on sight. This was complicated by the fact that many of the troops had been reported as looting themselves, and raised the ominous specter of gun battles between regular Army troops, National Guard troops, and police officers. Despite the reports of looting, primary responsibility for feeding and sheltering the homeless fell to the Army until relieved by the Red Cross many days after the event.
Rebuilding the shattered city was never questioned, planning steps were underway as the city still burned. Actual damages were over $400,000,000 in 1906 dollars, the Post’s headline being somewhat optimistic, but it didn’t anticipate much of the fire damage. More than 20 insurance companies went bankrupt over claims, though most claims were honored, even for those which were the result of arson. Part of this was a result of pressure from political entities and banks eager to encourage reinvestment in the city and speed rebuilding. By 1915 the city had recovered sufficiently to host the Panama – Pacific International Exposition.