- Historic Sites
Our 10 Greatest Natural Disasters
August/September 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 4
Post-Dispatch . “Throughout the night relief workers and ambulances endeavored to make their way through the streets strewn with wreckage, fallen telegraph poles and wires and burning embers. The only light afforded was that of the burning area.”In three and a half hours the storm had killed 695 people in 19 communities, injured 2,027 more, and caused $16.5 million in property damage, including 15,000 demolished homes. In the aftermath, devastated survivors found an uncanny preview of the sort of images that would dominate news from Europe in 15 years. “Scenes of suffering and horror marked the storm,” reported the
Californians live with a mixture of nebulous anxiety and denial about the next Big One, and the template for their nightmares was cut in 1906. The earthquake along the San Andreas fault a century ago—which registered on seismographs in Germany—still reverberates in the American consciousness as the benchmark against which all other tremors are measured. And though the quake jarred residents from Oregon to Los Angeles and from the coast to Nevada, it was near the epicenter in San Francisco that it did the most damage and took the most lives.
The San Francisco fires burned for four days.
At 5:13 a.m. on April 18, 1906, a foreshock startled the sleeping West Coast, followed 25 seconds later by violent shaking that lasted from 45 to 60 seconds and split the earth for 290 miles. In some spots the ground was offset as much as 20 feet, and fences that were straight the night before suddenly zigzagged. “The noise [was] deafening; the crash of dishes, falling pictures, the rattle of the flat tin roof, bookcases being overturned, the piano hurled across the parlor, the groaning and straining of the building itself, broken glass and falling plaster, made such a roar that no one noise could be distinguished,” remembered one San Franciscan. “I never expected to come out alive… . Stand in front of your clock and count off forty-eight seconds, and imagine this scene to have continued for that length of time, and you can get some idea of what one could suffer during that period.”
The devastation—which San Franciscans had not begun to see the worst of in those 48 seconds—went on for a full four days. The quake ruptured gas lines, igniting 52 fires around the city. The water mains burst too, so the fire department had nothing to fight the blazes with. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tenement dwellers, trapped when their buildings collapsed, were killed by the flames before they could be rescued. (Although the official death toll was well under a thousand, recent studies have suggested it ran as high as 3,000.) After the mayor called in the military, the Army dynamited buildings to prevent the spread of fire, but to little avail. By April 22, 4.7 square miles of the city had burned, leaving 250,000 people stranded in camps around the ruins. In the fall the city built shacks in the park for employed families, but it would be months before everyone had a home again.
Among the homeless were the residents of Chinatown, which, to a building, had burned to the ground. Nativist businessmen celebrated the opportunity to develop the coveted real estate into a shopping district. But, with the Chinese segregated in their own refugee camp on Van Ness Avenue, others began to worry that they would put down roots in their new, fashionable neighborhood. So officials shuttled the Chinese around from location to location—as far away as Oakland—until San Francisco realized it needed to keep their tax dollars and they were finally allowed to rebuild on the original Chinatown.
The first signs came from 5,000 miles away in the Sahara desert. On September 4 a French meteorologist at Blima Oasis noticed strong winds blowing toward the Atlantic. Two weeks later ships at sea were radioing the mainland about a fierce tropical storm headed its way. But when the eye bypassed Florida to arc north, forecasters at the National Weather Bureau assumed it would follow the usual course away from the coast.
1938: Winds reached 186 miles per hour.
Instead it headed straight for America’s industrial center at 60 mph. When the eye made landfall on Long Island, New York, at 2:30 p.m. on September 21, 1938, with a force detected by seismographs in Alaska, it was 50 miles wide and circled by 100-mph winds. It conspired with seasonal high tides and ground already drenched with rain to cause $300 million of damage in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York, and Vermont. With the highest wind speeds ever recorded at the time—186 mph in Milton, Massachusetts—the hurricane knocked over trees, houses, church steeples, and train trestles. Even so, water killed most of the storm’s victims. A huge windborne wave dumped almost 14 feet onto the Providence business district in minutes. “It was your worst nightmare coming true,” one survivor said. “I think many people have had through their years the nightmare of the ocean coming up, and they’re trying to get away from it, and they can’t get away from it. And this was something you’re seeing right in front of your eyes.”
Once the storm had swept into Canada and died out near the Arctic Circle that night, weary survivors, many of whom had stayed afloat by clutching debris, greeted dawn in a daze. A Mystic, Connecticut, resident recalled: “The next morning, everywhere I went, I saw faces full of misery and despair, as people who had barely been hanging on and trying to get along the best they could surveyed incalculable damage to their properties.