Tuesday, April 18, 2006

the great quake of 1906

On this day one hundred years ago, San Francisco was almost completely destroyed by a massive earthquake. This earthquake was no little shaker; at a magnitude 7.9 (the most recent estimate.... I'm not even sure if they use the Richter scale anymore), the epicenter sat two miles into the ocean off Ocean Beach near Lake Merced. Brick buildings crumbled everywhere (and hence we learned our mistake: not so many brick buildings in California anymore), and landfill-covered chunks of land that used to be part of the bay upchucked and swallowed foundations whole. It wasn't just the earthquake, though: a massive fire came through and destroyed everything that we think of as downtown.... the entire northeastern quadrant of the city burned to the ground.

Having experienced a 6.9 earthquake ten miles from its epicenter in 1989 (which, no matter how much they downplay it lately, was a huge m-f-ing earthquake, in its path wiping out all of downtown Santa Cruz for instance), I can tell you that a 7.9 back when buildings were unstable was probably quite an event.... unlike anything seen since then (unless you were in Anchorage in March of 1964; their 9.2 earthquake is the second largest recorded in modern history). In 1989, my house lost a chimney, a big brick hearth, and a window or two. The land splits apart (in some places) and wobbles, and you can hear the corners of the building you're in crack and whine. Aftershocks are pretty intense too. Pretty trippy. I'm in the camp that finds earthquakes more exhilerating than terrifying, but I don't wish any of the destruction or death that comes with them.

The 1906 Earthquake is quite a big deal to San Franciscans, because it still weighs heavily on their minds. It's interesting: in New York City, older buildings are heralded as being "pre-war"; in San Francisco, the older buildings (and usually the most beautiful) are "pre-earthquake". Of course in New York, the buildings weren't destroyed by a war.

I always assumed that I'd be in San Francisco for the centennial celebration of the 1906 quake. For past years they haul out the few really old grannies who were one or two years old during the quake, and have them ring a bell or something at 5:12 am to commemorate the event. Apparently there's a big party in the city today to celebrate the centennial, and it's a bummer that I'm not there to join in, being such a lover of all things San Francisco.... now, having taken a 90° turn, I've ended up on the other side of the country where earhthquakes sound scarier to people than hurricanes or tornadoes.

On a related note, I've been meaning to read 1906 since it came out two years ago, just for the hell of it. It has the potential to be trashy, but it's nice to see San Francisco treated right in the realm of fictional storytelling, other than in some crappy tv shows that shall remain unnamed. They have yet to make a stand-out movie about the 1906 earthquake (correct me if I'm wrong).... it could make an awesome Titanic-style epic...! Are you listening, producers? I'll write it for you.

The view down Sacramento Street (again: my old neighborhood!) toward what is Chinatown today.
People stand next to eviscerated buildings and causally watch as the fire races up Nob Hill.
Needless to say, none of these buildings are standing anymore.

1 comment:

Writeprocrastinator said...

You can relive the entire event on the Chronicle's SFGate page.


I caught most of everything, up to the moment of silence and in my opinion, you didn't miss too much. The best parts were the period costumes, classic cars and the horse-drawn carriages.

The crowd was very civilizied *once they were in place,* but everyone was packed in like sardines and I caught the rest on TV.

James Dallesandro did have "1906" optioned just after the success of "Titannic" and he even got to right the screenplay, but nothing came of it other than him getting to use that as a selling point for his screenwriting class for the Learning Annex.