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Commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the San Francisco Earthquake
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Katie Lawson
April 18, 2006

It was just 5:12 a.m. when an earthquake registering 8.25 on the Richter scale rocked the bay city of San Francisco, Calif., one hundred years ago today. While the quake lasted only a minute, the destruction to the city was unparalleled.

In the early morning hours on April 18, 2019, unsuspecting residents of San Francisco were awakened by the quake that lasted only 45 to 60 seconds that leveled buildings and left people trapped in the rubble. As the tremors subsided, multiple fires broke out—the result of severed electrical wires. Due to broken water mains, fire hoses were useless and allowed fires across the city to rage uncontrolled for three days. Approximately four square miles of the city were burned until the fires finally suffocated themselves.

Military troops were quickly deployed to San Francisco and the Army was the first to provide tents for the more than 200,000 misplaced persons. The America Red Cross was called upon to lead the relief effort in the area and met the challenge successfully despite many challenges and obstacles.

In the early stages of the relief efforts, the death toll was severely underestimated due to lack of communication with the affected area. Originally estimated to be less than 500, the death toll rose to some 3,000 or more. Congress immediately appropriated $2.5 million for the relief effort—equal to approximate $54 million today—and trains with emergency supplies headed for the city.

President Roosevelt bypassed the governing board of the American Red Cross and declared the organization best suited to spearhead the relief operation. The Red Cross faced challenge—a large scale disaster exceeded its previous relief efforts—having reorganized the previous year. Additionally, the organization had no financial reserves and lacked employees with disaster relief experience.

In the days immediately following the earthquake and fires, Red Cross workers were met with some animosity by the people of San Francisco. The San Francisco Committee of Fifty had been established to lead the relief effort and residents criticized the Red Cross for meddling in affairs that they felt should be handled by the citizens of the city.

After many negotiations and eventually reaching an agreement to share the existing funds, the Red Cross was able to coexist with local relief efforts. This resulted in the creation of the San Francisco Relief and Red Cross Funds, an organization to monitor and distribute the $8,508,362 that was donated by the public.

Initially, the Army was responsible for providing the population with food and shelter, and the Red Cross handled the general rehabilitation of the thousands of misplaced citizens. After the Army pulled out, the Red Cross broadened its operations to include food kitchens, constructing simple houses, providing craftsmen with tools and tradesmen with goods to help re-establish the business district and distributing remaining funds to people based on need.

Although the Red Cross was only one of the relief organizations involved in the recovery efforts, it played a significant role in restoring the city of San Francisco.

The More Things Change

Many things have changed in the last hundred years. Early warning systems can alert scientists and officials to seismic activity. Radios, television, cell phones and the Internet mean people can access information more immediately—whether learning of potential risks or witnessing the disaster remotely as it happens. Architectural and construction improvements make buildings safer, cars make evacuations or relocations easier and airplanes make the transportation of emergency relief supplies faster.

Likewise, some things remain constant. The Red Cross is still there to provide relief when disaster strikes. Nearly 1 million volunteers and 35,000 employees remain ready to leave their homes, push up their sleeves and do whatever they can to help those in need. In communities large and small, people give of their time, money and blood to help their neighbors down the street, across the country and around the world. Today, as it approaches its 125th anniversary, the American Red Cross responds to more than 70,000 disasters each year.

That’s not to say its services haven’t grown and evolved over the last hundred years as well. Prevention and preparedness have become key to the mission of the organization. Training not only its workers and volunteers but members of the community, the Red Cross works tirelessly to educate the public about the steps, plans and supplies they need in order to be ready should a disaster like an earthquake occur.

Be Ready to Keep Yourself Safe

Science also has come a long way in the last hundred years. Seismologists and meteorologists continue to develop means and methods to more accurately measure and forecast events like earthquakes and hurricanes, but Mother Nature still remains unpredictable. All the modern advances don’t replace common sense and being ready.

The centennial anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake reminds us to learn from history and take steps to prepare ourselves, our families and our communities for the unexpected. Whether you live in an earthquake prone area or are just visiting, familiarize yourself with these safety measures.

Make an Earthquake Plan

  • Choose a safe place in every room – under a sturdy table or desk or against an inside wall where nothing can fall on you.
  • Practice DROP, COVER AND HOLD ON at least twice a year. Drop under a sturdy desk or table, hold on and protect your eyes by pressing your face against your arm. If there's no table or desk nearby, sit on the floor against an interior wall away from windows, bookcases, or tall furniture that could fall on you.
  • Teach children to DROP, COVER AND HOLD ON!
  • Choose an out-of-town family contact.
  • Consult a professional to find out additional ways you can protect your home, such as bolting the house to its foundation.
  • Take a first aid class from your local Red Cross chapter. Keep your training current.
  • Learn how to properly use a fire extinguisher. Training is available through your local fire department.
  • Inform babysitters and caregivers of your plan.

What to Do When the Shaking Begins

  • DROP, COVER AND HOLD ON! Move only a few steps to a nearby safe place. Stay indoors until the shaking stops and you're sure it's safe to exit. Stay away from windows. In a high-rise building, expect the fire alarms and sprinklers to go off during a quake.
  • If you are in bed, hold on and stay there, protecting your head with a pillow.
  • If you are outdoors, find a clear spot away from buildings, trees, and power lines. Drop to the ground.
  • If you are in a car, slow down and drive to a clear place (as described above). Stay in the car until the shaking stops.

    What to Do After the Shaking Stops

    • Check yourself for injuries. Protect yourself from further danger by putting on long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, sturdy shoes, and work gloves.
    • Check others for injuries. Give first aid for serious injuries.
    • Look for and extinguish small fires. Eliminate fire hazards. Turn off the gas if you smell gas or think it's leaking. (Remember, only a professional should turn it back on.)
    • Listen to the radio for instructions.
    • Expect aftershocks. Each time you feel one, DROP, COVER AND HOLD ON!
    • Inspect your home for damage. Get everyone out if your home is unsafe.
    • Use the telephone only to report life-threatening emergencies.

    To learn more about preparing for earthquakes or other disasters or hazards, visit the “Get Prepared” section of RedCross.org or contact local Red Cross chapter.

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