Deadly Similarities a Century Apart





As Americans followed in horror the anarchy, looting and mounting death toll in the wake of the New Orleans flooding, California historians compared that city's devastation with another disaster of nearly a century ago: the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906.

In both cases, they say, cities crucial to the U.S. economy of the era -- San Francisco's financial might and New Orleans' offshore oil reserves -- were hit by a natural disaster: one by an 8.3 magnitude temblor and the other by a Category 4 hurricane.

But after withstanding the first blow, both cities suffered extensive damage from the unexpected second punch that followed within hours.

Fires raged in San Francisco for three days, leveling 90% of the city's structures, including 37 national banks. In New Orleans, several levees were breached, causing massive flooding and forcing evacuation of the city.

Historians point out that the Bay Area debacle was in part caused by a lack of water; New Orleans suffered from too much of it.

Stephen Becker, executive director of the San Francisco-based California Historical Society, said that even though they occurred 99 years apart, the similarities between the two catastrophes are uncanny.

Both primarily affected the poor, for a time rendering the cities essentially unlivable. They were followed by street looting and other crimes, and evoked immediate soul-searching about what government agencies could have done to more quickly alleviate the suffering and prevent widespread loss of lives and property.

"Both disasters were followed by the 'blame game,' " he said.

In San Francisco, a malfunctioning water system meant there was not enough water to fight the ensuing fires. As a result, authorities used gunpowder to blow up buildings as a firebreak -- a move that only started more fires.

"In San Francisco, people wanted to know why, despite numerous warnings, officials had not improved the water system," Becker said. "In New Orleans, people are asking, 'How do you more quickly get the logistical work done to patch those damaged levees?' It has proven not an easy thing to do at all."

Many of the estimated 3,000 San Francisco casualties a century ago were poor Italian, Irish and Chinese immigrants who lived in cramped, substandard housing. The temblor struck at 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906, killing many people in their beds.

For years, the official death toll stood at 478. But decades of research by Gladys Cox Hansen, curator at the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco, indicates that more than 3,000 died.


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