Deadly Similarities a Century Apart

Times Staff Writer

As Americans followed in horror the anarchy, looting and mounting death toll in the wake of the New Orleans flooding, California historians compared that city's devastation with another disaster of nearly a century ago: the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906.

In both cases, they say, cities crucial to the U.S. economy of the era -- San Francisco's financial might and New Orleans' offshore oil reserves -- were hit by a natural disaster: one by an 8.3 magnitude temblor and the other by a Category 4 hurricane.

But after withstanding the first blow, both cities suffered extensive damage from the unexpected second punch that followed within hours.

Fires raged in San Francisco for three days, leveling 90% of the city's structures, including 37 national banks. In New Orleans, several levees were breached, causing massive flooding and forcing evacuation of the city.

Historians point out that the Bay Area debacle was in part caused by a lack of water; New Orleans suffered from too much of it.

Stephen Becker, executive director of the San Francisco-based California Historical Society, said that even though they occurred 99 years apart, the similarities between the two catastrophes are uncanny.

Both primarily affected the poor, for a time rendering the cities essentially unlivable. They were followed by street looting and other crimes, and evoked immediate soul-searching about what government agencies could have done to more quickly alleviate the suffering and prevent widespread loss of lives and property.

"Both disasters were followed by the 'blame game,' " he said.

In San Francisco, a malfunctioning water system meant there was not enough water to fight the ensuing fires. As a result, authorities used gunpowder to blow up buildings as a firebreak -- a move that only started more fires.

"In San Francisco, people wanted to know why, despite numerous warnings, officials had not improved the water system," Becker said. "In New Orleans, people are asking, 'How do you more quickly get the logistical work done to patch those damaged levees?' It has proven not an easy thing to do at all."

Many of the estimated 3,000 San Francisco casualties a century ago were poor Italian, Irish and Chinese immigrants who lived in cramped, substandard housing. The temblor struck at 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906, killing many people in their beds.

For years, the official death toll stood at 478. But decades of research by Gladys Cox Hansen, curator at the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco, indicates that more than 3,000 died.

Hansen has blamed the undercount on the era's bigoted policies, as well as on government efforts to downplay the real damage. San Francisco supervisors agreed in January to raise the official death toll before the quake centennial in 2006.

Within hours of the 1906 quake, tent cities were raised. Later, facilities for survivors were erected in parks and other open spaces. Local, state and federal authorities were nonetheless criticized for a relief distribution system that moved too slowly. San Francisco Mayor Eugene Schmitz eventually issued shoot-to-kill orders in response to reports of looting.

In New Orleans, those tent cities were replaced by the Superdome and the convention center, which were packed with thousands of poor and indigent residents.

And authorities faced life-and-death decisions on whether to interrupt rescue efforts to deal with theft and looting that ran rampant on the city's flooded streets.

"Unfortunately," Becker said, "it has been the poor who have suffered the worst through these disasters."

Los Angeles historian Gloria Ricci Lothrop agreed.

As she watched television coverage of the disaster, Lothrop said she was struck by "the faces of all those people in the Superdome," the poor and minority residents who had nowhere else to go. This, like San Francisco, "has been a class-segregated disaster."

Lothrop estimated that more than 670 books have been written about the Bay Area earthquake, showing that the disaster continues to resonate within the popular imagination a century later. "As a culture, we're still traumatized by this event -- we're still writing about it, even today," said Lothrop, a professor emeritus of history at Cal State Northridge.

New Orleans will eventually investigate what cultural treasures have been lost in the looting and floodwaters, just as San Franciscans in 1906 learned that lost artifacts, including books, paintings and manuscripts, were irreplaceable. "Even today, we're still feeling the effects of those losses," she said.

But Lothrop is heartened to see that past efforts of cities a century ago to assist San Francisco have been repeated as state and local agencies throughout the nation scramble to send aid and open their own shelters to the evacuees.

Becker said comparisons of the two disasters will no doubt increase as the weeks and months pass. And though San Francisco was eventually rebuilt into a world-class tourist destination, officials still worry about the immediate future of New Orleans.

"We're still right in the middle of one of those iconic disasters of our era," Becker said. "When do you start to apply what we've learned from past disaster? When do you start thinking of Rome?"

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