Saturday, April 18, 2009


One hundred three years ago today, the good gray city of San Francisco was destroyed, first by a long harsh moment of great shaking, then by three unrelenting days of firestorm. It couldn’t have come as a surprise. Indian legend remembers the actual creation of the Santa Clara Valley, the Salinas River plain, the Russian River, and even of the Golden Gate itself between the Bay and the Pacific. The Spaniards and Mexicans were endlessly rebuilding their missions -- there was more than one año de los temblors. Mark Twain witnessed the quake of 1865, and wrote “The Great Earthquake in San Francisco.” Another quake struck three years later, also Great. As for fire, the city burned six times during the gold rush days -- Christmas Eve of 1849, three times in 1850 (hardly anything left to burn, in that third fire), and twice the following year. Three “Great Fires” and three not-so-great fires, in as many years.

But, again, just over one hundred years ago, San Francisco was destroyed. This is not news. At the time it was the largest city west of the Mississippi, the commercial hub of the west, and its destruction virtually stopped commerce west of the Rockies. But such a thing is unlikely to occur now -- we survived, after all, the economic blow of 9/11. Most of San Francisco’s deaths -- between three- and five thousand -- were caused by the 7.8 quake, and most damage was the result of the firestorm afterward. All this has little relevance today. Our cities are built to code. Our firefighters are more than competent.

Then again, war is war. During WW II, more than sixty-five Japanese cities were utterly destroyed, including Tokyo and Kobe. Blasted from the skies. Not mere bombs -- incendiary bombs. The weapon was not explosives, but fire. Fire. Or rather, firestorm. Oh, and a couple more cities were destroyed with nukes. As much energy can be released in ten minutes of firestorm, as in the bright sheer moment of a Little Boy or a Fat Man.

When we say the Great San Francisco Earthquake, we mean the Great Earthquake and Firestorm. The Great London Firestorm. The Great Chicago Firestorm. And then all those deliberate firestorms of war -- the calculated destruction of, say, Hamburg (the fire reached a height of 2000 meters), or Dresden (over 200,000 Germans killed in that one). Not an unknown phenomenon, then.

The flames leap from block to block, isolated fires joining like streams into rivers. Temperatures get hot enough to melt glass -- to melt iron. Canals catch fire. Fleeing people sink into boiling asphalt like sloths into tar pits. Winds grow to hurricane forces as cool air is dragged in along the ground to replace the air blasting up with the heat -- trees are knocked over like reeds. Roofs are torn from their joists and combust in midair, to rain down as flaming ash, spreading more havoc. Fire climbs stone walls, crosses tile roofs and pours down chimneys like kerosene down a gopher hole. Most casualties come not from the flames, but from poisonous gases, from asphyxiation, from distant heat.

One obvious conclusion is that there isn’t a city in the world that the US couldn’t utterly destroy at will. Without any recourse to nukes. And with much less political fallout. The precedent is there, after all. Fire is natural, after all. And after all, the really evil thing about nukes is the radiation -- not a problem, with firestorm. Even total warfare need not be nuclear. This should be a comfort to all of us.

As for accidental carnage and its aftermath -- not the war-kind, which is, excuses aside, deliberate, but the Great Earthquake and Firestorm kind -- well, there are no accidents, and everything is politics. Cities change, but people don’t. Institutions change, but human nature is a constant. The fine old institution of vigilantism played its role during the San Fransisco crisis -- looters were hanged from lamp posts -- but all such charges were denied by the authorities. A sort of coup was staged, where the moneyed interests took over government from the elected, graft-driven politicos. Well, is this a bad thing? Greed is less contemptible than corruption.

After, the city boosters downplayed every aspect of the earthquake, and focused on the controllable, the predictable element of fire. Fire was, after all, covered by insurance companies. Earthquake was not. And every effort was made to frame the fire in, um, a good light, somehow. What, a great fire? Well, yes, but we’ve had great fires before. Indeed, the Great Fire of 1868 was claimed at the time to be, uh, greatly “exaggerated,” per the close harmony of SF newspapers -- insurance, don’t you know, even then … and investors. A city report on the ’68 fire was, um, “lost” … just as well -- who needs that kind of publicity?

A propaganda campaign was launched, as before, in 1906. Nothing to see here, folks. Casualties were underreported. Fault lines were no longer represented on new printings of state maps. No history of the quake was published -- a pattern, then. The city grew up again with breathtaking speed, and with virtually no regard to safety standards. Would have slowed things down, don’t you know. Bad for business.

Hm. Well, all this was such a long time ago. Hardly a man is now alive who remembers that famous day and year -- famous the way 1666 is famous, or 1871. It can have no relevance, or only a little, for today, right? After all, ninety percent of the structures of San Francisco were constructed of wood. Wood, for crumb’s sake, like what you make bonfires with -- might as well have been grass huts. And it’s not as if we’re building on sand, or landfill, anymore. Right? All things continue as they were from the beginning. Right? We're safe.

But it is a good thing, to own a raincoat. Because storms come.


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