Natural Disasters and Infrastructure: The Story of San Francisco in 1906

While the discussion of disaster we had during Laura’s presentation focused on purposeful terrorist attacks, it brings up as well the damage to infrastructure done by natural disasters and how those infrastructure losses can change the course of a disaster or the city itself.  Thinking on Graham’s urban Achilles concept it seems useful to look to the past and see how these losses affected the city of San Francisco during its 1906 earthquake almost exactly 111 years ago (April 18th).  While in 1906 the amount of infrastructure was highly limited compared to today, no internet or electricity grid to be disrupted, there were still drastic issues due to the infrastructure that did exist.  First of all, when the primary earthquake of 1906 took place, it was too strong to be measured on the Richter scale ( but despite this shaking it was the subsequent fires that really created the disaster.  The main disaster was one of infrastructure: The city’s water mains were shattered by the earthquake and so there was no way for the remaining emergency responders (quite a few were killed in the original quake) to address the fires springing up across the city.  The infrastructure of the city itself also was a factor in this disaster as 90% of the city’s buildings were either wood sheathed in brick or just wooden structures (Reader’s Digest Great Disasters: 1989).  A similar type of disaster took place in Chicago in 1871 with fire raging in the city for 3 days, destroying thousands of buildings and killing 300 people (


It is obvious how the networked infrastructure of water mains affected the disaster in San Francisco but I believe that the network of city streets also had a drastic effect.  Homes in these cities were so close together that if one house on the street caught fire it was highly likely that every home on the street would burn.  In 1906 the army tried to curtail the fire in San Francisco by using dynamite to bomb houses, hoping to create fire breaks, but the people in charge were inexperienced and often demolished houses for no reason as the fire shifted before reaching them.

It took four days for all the fires in San Francisco to be extinguished and although at that point the immediate danger seemed to be over the city was still in crisis as the center of the city had been either toppled by the earthquake, ravaged by fire, or both.  Over 28,000 buildings, including all of the business and commercial districts of the city had been destroyed.  It took nearly 3 years for the city to get fully back on its feet.  Had, by some miracle, the water mains survived the original earthquake, the fires that had erupted throughout the city could have been contained and San Francisco would have a drastically different look today.  Infrastructure networks play a crucial role in our cities no matter who or what disaster befalls us.



1 Comment

  1. Your example of the San Francisco fire reminds me a lot of the recent fire that has finally been extinguished in Tennessee because this contemporary example shares a lot of similarities to your example. Two teenagers earlier this year started a fire in the Great Smoky Mountain National Part in TN, and the fire ended up spreading to the surrounding communities, killing 14 people, destroying over 2000 homes, and causing the evacuation of 14,000. Damages right now are estimated at $500 million and the fire has been dubbed “the worst state fire in history”. Having family who live near Gatlinburg, I was incredibly concerned that they were going to have to evacuate when the fire started spreading into the cities. I think what’s interesting is that in these infrastructural disasters, we often focus strictly on the people impacted, the buildings, etc. When the Gatlinburg fires starting spreading, a concern facing the town was what would happen to the animals inside Ripley’s Aquarium. If an evacuation was to occur, there would have not have been enough time to gather the manpower required or the equipment to move the animals to a safer location, which caused a moral dilemma when the town was potentially going to be evacuated. I also think what is interesting is the collective response to infrastructural disasters, which Tennessee is currently illustrating as they are trying to rebuild after the fires. People outside the TN network who have no relation to the state or its people are contributing funds and their support to help them rebuild. I just wonder in those three years you mentioned in which it took the city to get back on its feet, what kind of network emerged as a response to the disaster.


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