On April 18, 1906, an earthquake struck San Francisco and set off raging fires. The quake had a magnitude between 7.7 and 8.3 on the Richter scale and came shortly after 5 a.m. in two shocks that lasted more than a minute.

The April 19 New York Times reported: “The people became panic-stricken, and rushed into the streets, most of them in their night attire. They were met by showers of falling bricks, cornices and walls of buildings. Many were crushed to death, while others were badly mangled. Those who remained indoors generally escaped with their lives, though scores were hit by detached plaster, pictures and articles thrown to the floor by the shock. It is believed that more or less loss was sustained by nearly every family in the city.”

More than 3,000 people died and more than a quarter-million were left homeless. Tens of thousands of people were forced to live in tents, where they remained for months and even years after the earthquake. The unsanitary conditions of the tent cities contributed to an outbreak of bubonic plague in the city in 1907.

Before the earthquake, San Francisco had been the largest city in the American West and its financial and cultural center. The quake caused a shift in population; Oakland, situated across San Francisco Bay, saw its population double, while the countryside of Marin County north of the city grew into a populous suburb. The quake also caused a gradual shift of trade and population to Southern California; by the 1920 Census, Los Angeles had surpassed San Francisco as the West’s largest city.

The leaders of San Francisco moved quickly to rebuild the city. They first considered plans from renowned architect and urban planner David Burnham for a city with large boulevards and classical structures, but instead opted for the far more practical solution of rebuilding the city largely where it had stood. They relaxed building codes to encourage a speedy rebuilding, and thousands of buildings went up in just a few years, creating a new, modern city.

In 2006, for the 100th anniversary of the earthquake, The San Francisco Chronicle compared the government response to the quake with that of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005. While the response to Katrina was marked by slow progress at the city, state and federal levels, the response to the quake, nearly a century before, had been, swift, forceful and somewhat reckless.

What lessons in emergency response do you think can be learned from the San Francisco and New Orleans disasters? In your opinion, have we improved our readiness for such a large-scale disaster?  On a personal note, are you and your family ready for the next big earthquake (or disaster likely for your area)?