Quake: San Francisco's Lessons for New Orleans

It's hard to imagine future generations in New Orleans gathering even 200 years from now outside the Superdome to parade around in period costumes from 2005 and celebrate their city's renaissance—certainly not with the frivolity on display in San Francisco this week. With the wounds of the nation's last great natural disaster so fresh, many wondered how San Francisco would pull off the centennial observations of the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906 that left destruction so complete that Jack London, then a newspaper correspondent, wired his East Coast editors, "San Francisco is gone; nothing remains of it but memories."

That line drew a defiant chuckle from the thousands who gathered in the darkness Tuesday morning for an annual ritual to commemorate the 3,000 who perished in 1906, but more importantly to revel in the spirit that allowed San Francisco to dust itself off from what, until Katrina, was the worst natural disaster to befall an American city. There was, to be sure, plenty of campy nostalgia—revelers swanning down Market Street in Victorian costumes and a guy dressed like Enrico Caruso (the famed tenor who performed "Carmen" the night before the quake and fled, never to return)—but the event also offered more than a few lessons in civic resilience that are still painfully relevant today. "Don't tell me you can't rebuild," said Mayor Gavin Newsom, alluding to the inevitable comparison between the two disaster-prone cities. "We hope this city is the example to give people confidence." Like New Orleans, San Francisco is a bawdy, fun-loving city made both beautiful—and cursed—by its geography. Its charming hillsides and 750,000 residents are clustered atop one of the deadliest geologic features on earth: the boundary between the North American and Pacific plates, whose rupture in 1906 led to the birth of modern earthquake science and the discovery of the deadly San Andreas fault. "To live in San Francisco is courting disaster, it's madness" says author Simon Winchester, a trained geologist, who wrote about the 1906 quake in his bestseller "A Crack in the Edge of the World." He warns, "The likelihood of a repeat is something that people are uniquely in denial about." Yet, unlike New Orleans, which was already desperately poor and plagued by corruption when its disaster struck, San Francisco in 1906 was a prosperous, strutting city of 400,000, the largest west of the Mississippi. While Gulf Coast residents waited for days in the jet era for help to arrive, in San Francisco in 1906, U.S. Army troops stationed at the Presidio were distributing tents and rations within hours. There is also the city's pioneer spirit to consider. "The people who settled San Francisco crossed an entire continent and suffered tremendous privation to get west and claw gold from the Sierras," says Winchester. "There is a uniquely resilient spirit here that you don't necessarily see on the Gulf Coast." Yet the odds of a repeat disaster in San Francisco are overwhelming. Scientists, 2,000 of whom have gathered in San Francisco this week for an earthquake conference, know that the Bay Area is transected by seven major faults. The chances of a significant disruption along one of those faults are a staggering 62 percent over the next 30 years, far higher than the probability assigned to a levee collapse in New Orleans. Should a major earthquake occur in the densely populated and multiethnic Bay Area today, says Mary Lou Zoback, a seismologist with the United States Geological Survey, the social and economic devastation "would look a lot like the aftermath of Katrina, only people would be speaking 150 different languages." That scenario keeps city officials awake at night. "There is a tendency to romanticize 1906," says Annemarie Conroy, the director of San Francisco's Office of Emergency Services, whose great-grandmother was killed in the fire that devoured much of the city in the days after the quake. "We do have to fight the complacency that people don't realize nature and science guarantee we are going to have another one." Conroy's office has launched a Web site, 72hours.org , which instructs San Franciscans how to survive for three days on their own after a major disaster. "If Hurricane Katrina taught us anything, it's that the individual citizen has got to be prepared." The San Francisco Fire Department has also trained and equipped 8,000 civilian volunteers into Neighborhood Emergency Response Teams, known as "NERTS." Dozens were on hand Tuesday morning, waving their bright yellow helmets and flashlights. Yet they were far outnumbered by party-goers in Victorian finery, reflecting perhaps the city's fatalistic attitude—a mind-set long held by residents of New Orleans as hurricanes rumbled toward the city in years past. Renee Gibbons, a native of Dublin who has lived in San Francisco for the past 30 years, turned out in her Gibson girl hat and a sweeping violet gown to take in the earthquake festivities. When asked whether she'd prepared her earthquake survival kit, Gibbons brightly responded, "I have a flashlight and I'm going to get a whistle." And food or water? "I live right above a restaurant," she said cheerfully. "I'm sure they'll provide." Though the event was intended to be a commemoration of tragedy, in addition to a celebration of survival, the party mood definitely won out. After the wreath-laying and the mournful wail of the sirens, Mayor Newsom made his way around the stage, interviewing a surprisingly spry group of survivors, the oldest of whom was 109. "I was conceived and born in a tent," explained 99-year-old Norma Norwood, whose parents were made refugees by the quake. Later, the family moved to a downtown boarding house, where, she proudly announced, "I was raised by prostitutes." "Well," replied the mayor, not missing a beat, "Did they do a good job?" "I'm here, aren't I?" answered Norwood. With that, the crowd disbursed for a day of parades and concerts. Downtown bars, for those needing a stiff one after all the quake reminders, opened at 6 a.m.