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San Francisco Earthquake

San Francisco Earthquake

Date: April 18, 1906

3,000 killed

$524 million in property damage

The earthquake of April 18th, 1906 in California is considered one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the United States. Although it is often referred to as the "San Fransisco earthquake", the earthquake also caused damage to regions such as Santa Rosa and San Jose.

When Did The Earthquake Happen?

At 5:12am, on the 18th of April 1906, there was a foreshock that could be felt throughout the San Francisco Bay area. Approximately 25 seconds later, the main shock began. The strong shaking lasted for 42 seconds.

How Was The Earthquake Caused?

The affected areas are located on or near the San Andreas Fault, which starts from the north at Cape Mendocino, and runs south to the Salton sea for a total distance of approximately 1,300 km or 810 miles.

The northward movement of the Pacific plate in the west and the southward movement of the North American plate in the east caused an accumulation of stress, which was finally released with the 1906 earthquake.

Impact Of The Earthquake

Death Toll

While the initial reported amount of casualties was 375, this was a severely under-reported number as casualties from the Chinatown area were not included or ignored. Even till this day, the total number of deaths is uncertain, though it has been estimated to be 3,000 or higher.

The location of these deaths mostly occurred in San Francisco. There were reports of a further 189 deaths in other parts of the Bay area.


The estimated population of San Francisco at the time was roughly 410,000 people. Out of this amount, up to 300,000 people were left homeless because of the earthquake. Out of these survivors, half of these people fled to Berkeley and Oakland.

Those who remained found refuge in places such as the Presidio, the Panhandle, Golden Gate park, as well as the beaches between North beach and Ingleside. Newspapers at the time reported that these areas had been turned into makeshift campgrounds.

Damage from the Natural Disaster

The earthquake is estimated to have destroyed over 25,000 buildings and was the cause of fires being ignited in the aftermath. This problem was further exacerbated by the fact that water mains were destroyed, leaving firefighters with no means to fight the blaze.

Another problem faced with the fire included exposed gas mains. While the fire department was demolishing buildings with dynamite, it inadvertently ignited fires from these gas mains.

Another situation included residents cooking in their homes. To prevent this, residents were required to cook in the streets to prevent any further mishaps.

The fire itself is estimated to have contributed to 90% of the total damage from the natural disaster.

Economic Impact

The effect of the earthquake on the economy of San Francisco was tremendous. At the time, San Francisco was the largest city on the west coast of the United states. It had become the main hub for trade, finance and culture in the West with all import/export commerce running through the port.

The earthquake and subsequent fire destroyed more than 80% of the city. This disaster lead to the diversion of trade, population growth and industry towards Los Angeles.

Financial Losses

The value of property losses resulting from the earthquake were estimated to be greater than $400 million. At the time, insurance losses were estimated to total 235 million dollars. In 2015 values, this would be equivalent to 6.19 billion dollars.

The total cost of damage resulting from the earthquake was estimated to be 10.5 billion dollars measured in 2015 values.

Response to The Earthquake

Troops were mobilized to help keep order, assist the fire department with demolition works and prevent looting. They also helped to provide food, clothing and shelter to the displaced people of the city.

Funds were allocated from the US government to the city for emergency resources such as water, food, blankets, tents, medical supplies for the weeks following the natural disaster. Funds were also allocated to rebuild public buildings that were destroyed.

Financial relief also came in from other organisations and countries and totalled over 5 million dollars. Hundreds of thousands of dollars was raised by London. Standard Oil donated 100k, Andrew Carnegie 100k, Bank of Canada 25k, and the Dominion of Canada 100k.

5,610 temporary "relief" houses were built by the army, and could accommodate 20,000 people. At the peak, these refugee camps had a population of 16,448 people. Most had moved out by 1907.

The homes were rented out for 2 dollars per month, and contributed to the full purchase price of the home. (Which cost 50 dollars).


Although the earthquake was devastating to the city, San Francisco recovered quickly. The destruction of the buildings now allowed town planners to create a better organised city. Since the city had grown in a random and unplanned manner since the gold rush, the layout of the city was disorganised. The city was rebuilt with a more logical structure.

Being Prepared For An Earthquake - Create Your Own Earthquake Kit

As we've learned, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake left the residents of the city without a home, running water or electricity. In such times, having your own survival kit could quite literally save your life.

Here is a list of items to include in your own earthquake survival kit:

  • Water
  • Food - canned foods and high energy foods
  • First Aid kit - bandages, soap/cleansing agent, gloves, sunscreen, non-prescription medicine, scissors, needle, thermometer, petroleum jelly.
  • Tools & supplies - paper cups/plates/utensils, batteries, flashlight, cash, can opener, foil, tape, storage containers
  • Sanitation - toilet paper, soap, rubbish bags, disinfectant
  • Clothing and bedding - work boots, rain gear, blankets/sleeping bags, sunglasses
  • Important Documents - Will, passport, social security card, bank account numbers, birth/marriage/death certificates.