On April 18, 1906, at 5:12 a.m., San Francisco and the surrounding area was struck by a destructive 7.8-magnitude earthquake, whose epicenter lay just 2 miles west of the city. The earthquake was quickly followed by massive fires that, over the course of three days, burned a large portion of the city. Three thousand people would be killed, and half of San Francisco’s population would become refugees.
When the earthquake struck not long after 5 a.m. on Wednesday, April 18, most people were still in bed. A brief initial shock was followed by the main quake, which lasted 45 to 60 seconds. In that minute, buildings throughout the city crumbled or sank into the ground, roads cracked, water and gas mains broke, and thousands of people were killed, trapped, or injured.
It wasn’t just San Francisco that was affected; nearby cities such as Santa Rosa and San Jose were equally decimated by the earthquake, and tremors were felt as far north as Oregon and as far south as Los Angeles. A strong aftershock around 8 a.m. sent further buildings toppling.
The destruction caused by the earthquake was devastating enough, but within half an hour more than 50 fires had been reported in San Francisco. Despite the response of local firemen, some of the fires grew into massive conflagrations that burned through well-known neighborhoods, including the city’s downtown, Chinatown, and Nob Hill. By the time the fires were finally put out on Saturday, 4.7 square miles, 500 city blocks, and 28,000 buildings had burned.
As a result of the earthquake and fires, more than 200,000 San Franciscans (out of a population of 400,000) became homeless. Initially, many camped in
parks or other open spaces, but soon many fled the city altogether—some
temporarily, others permanently. Organized relief efforts distributed food, water, and shelter to the refugees, and millions of dollars in aid and donations were given to the city.
The clean-up from the disaster would take two years, and rebuilding the city would take even longer. By 1915 San Francisco had recovered enough to host the Panama—Pacific International Exposition. In some respects, however, the city never fully recovered from the earthquake: before the disaster, San Francisco had been the leading city on the West Coast, but following it, Los Angeles took its place.
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