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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Dealing with Disaster: The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906


The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 remains one of the biggest urban disasters in American history. This paper gives a comprehensive overview of how the city coped with the immediate consequences of the catastrophe and quickly rebuilt. It analyzes the tense political situation of San Francisco in 1906, the role of the economic elite during and after the disaster, insurance aspects, social consequences of the process of rebuilding, and, finally, the treatment of the earthquake in the media and by contemporary geologists. I argue that the rebound of San Francisco was contingent on a unique combination of factors that ensured its success. However, San Francisco has limited value as a role model for other cities in a disaster situation. The downplay of the geological danger in the interest of economic benefits stood in the way of an adequate preparation for future earthquakes and hampered attempts to educate the general public.

Keywords: San Francisco; Urban History; Earthquake; Natural Disasters

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