Friday, March 3, 2017

Earthquake Survival

As a Seattle-area native, I have been hearing my whole life about the risks of earthquakes in this area - talk about earthquakes and earthquake drills have become second nature to me.  I can remember experiencing three significant earthquakes, including the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake (when I was sitting in my high school classroom).  I can also remember stories from my grandmother of the 1949 earthquake, in which waves were smashing against the windows of her office building on Lake Washington; and my mom in the 1965 earthquake, when she had to duck from bricks falling off chimneys as she was walking home from school.  For me then, earthquakes are relatively minor (no significant damage and nobody hurt or dead) and kind of exciting.  However, the fear of a severe earthquake is all too real.  Scientists have been saying for many years that we are long overdue for (or at least could be hit any day by) "the big one".  This concept was echoed in a widely-read 2015 New Yorker article, The Really Big One, which predicts complete devastation of western Washington.

The subject of this post is a  real-life disaster that may be similar to whenever the big one does decide to hit Seattle.  The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake was one of the worst natural disasters in American history.  As a result of the (approximately) 7.8 magnitude earthquake: 3,000 people were killed; over 220,000 people became homeless; 80% of the city was destroyed and the cost to restore was approximately 10 billion dollars (estimate of the actual cost in 2015 dollars).  In spite of the tragedy, the aftermath of that event is uplifting: people (citizens, companies, governments) came together to care for the wounded and homeless and quickly rebuild the city.  In nine short years, San Francisco celebrated its complete recovery at the Pan-Pacific Exposition in 1915.

This blog explores the earthquake and its recovery through the lens of the experience of my great-grandfather's sister, Ada Jones, who survived the disaster and was a part of the city's recovery.

Ada Jones
Ada Plymale Jones, c. 1909

Ada Plymale Jones was born and raised in southern Oregon, one of the oldest siblings of my great-grandfather Ben Plymale.  She married at 19 and had a happy, but brief, married life.  She moved with her husband to the Bay Area of California in 1896.  Sadly, tragedies struck her family.  Both of her children died in childhood and her husband died suddenly in 1900, at the age of 35.  Ada was left in a difficult situation. At 34, her entire family was dead and she had nothing to do but go back to work and support herself.  Although she had worked for newspapers in her youth, she decided to go into a field that was popular with women: stenography.

At the time of the 1906 earthquake, Ada was living by herself in an apartment in nearby Oakland, California.  She was working as a stenographer for the Fulton Iron Works in their office in downtown San Francisco.  Ada was at work in San Francisco at the time the earthquake hit during the morning of April 18, 1906.

The Earthquake

3rd and Howard in San Francisco.  This was just two blocks
from Ada's office - Fulton Iron Works - where she was at the
time of the quake and which was also destroyed in the disaster
Courtesy California Historical Society
Prior to the major 1906 earthquake, there were decades of minor earthquakes that served as precursors to the big one.  The big earthquake hit on the morning of April 18, 1906; the epicenter was just offshore, west from San Francisco.  The earthquake lasted about 42 seconds and estimates range from 7.7 to 8.3 magnitude on the Richter scale. 
Many buildings were destroyed during the initial quake.  However, most of the destruction occurred as a result of widespread fires in the city.  The fires burned out of control because of ruptured gas mains and an inability to fight the fires because the city's water system was also destroyed. The fires burned out of control for four days.  At that point, 80% of the city was destroyed.  In addition to the hardships to its inhabitants, this was also crippling to the economy because San Francisco was then the largest city and port on the west coast. 

Front page of the Oakland Tribune newspaper, April 18, 1906

At the time, my great-grandfather on my other side of the family (Odin Wadleigh) was a 17-year old high school student in upstate New York.  He wrote the following entry in his diary on April 18, 1906: "There was a terrible earthquake in San Francisco this A.M. It killed 3,000 persons and destroyed many buildings. Fire broke out and because the water works + water pipes were destroyed could not be stopped. They are having an awful time. We do not know all about it yet." And the next day he wrote: "We hear more about San Francisco. The earthquake has ceased but fire is raging every where and can not be stopped. The whole city will probably be destroyed."


a scene from one of the refugee camps at the Presidio, where
Ada lived for three weeks after the earthquake
Courtesy California Historical Society
When the earthquake hit, Ada was at work in her office at Howard and Fremont.  She managed to escape unharmed even though her office building was destroyed.  In addition, her  home in Oakland was also destroyed and all of her possessions were lost.  This was probably a terrifying time; it would have been difficult to find food or water and in the immediate aftermath there were many riots and looting and the mayor gave an order for military and law enforcement to "shoot to kill" anyone engaging in those activities.  Somehow, Ada navigated her way through the rubble of city to the Presidio, where she assembled with other survivors.  For the next three weeks, Ada lived as a homeless refugee on the grounds of the Presidio - where she probably lived in a shared tent and received food and water supplied by the US military. 

Six days after the disaster, Ada was finally able to notify her family in Oregon that she was alive and safe.  Three weeks later, she was eventually able to evacuate out of the city and went to Medford, Oregon to stay with her sister.  Others were not so lucky, especially if they did not have relatives they could stay with or money they could access (most banks were not able to disperse money because their funds were still locked in fire-proof vaults that had to completely cool before opening).  Somewhere between 220,000 and 300,000 people were made homeless as a result of the tragedy and two years later, many refugees were still living in camps in the city. A majority of the homeless population though evacuated out of the city and fled as refugees to other cities (most to San Jose and Los Angeles) where they were supported in camps similar to those in San Francisco. 

In spite of the magnitude of destruction, the city was relatively efficient at supporting the refugees and rebuilding the city.  At the time, many government officials downplayed the extent of the disaster - with the intent of appealing to potential investors, which seems to have been successful.   Many insurance companies went bankrupt as a result of payouts from the disaster (mostly due to fire claims, earthquake damage was - and still is - not covered by most insurance policies).  The disaster also received worldwide attention and the effort was also aided by relief support from around the world - and received funds from the federal US government, from foreign governments and from private companies and individuals.

Short newspaper article about Ada in the
Medford Mail Tribune, May 18, 1906
After spending about a month with her sister, Ada realized that she needed to find a job and a place to live.  During the summer of 1906, she briefly moved to Grants Pass, Oregon and then to Roseburg, Oregon; where she accepted temporary work.  Then in August 1906, she moved by herself to Seattle, where she had finally found a permanent job.  In Seattle, she worked for the Caldwell Brothers Company, which manufactured and sold machinery - including urban water systems - perhaps they helped with the reconstruction effort in San Francisco.  (Her office was in Pioneer Square, across the street from where I currently work). 

She lived in Seattle for four months until she heard from her old employer - Fulton Iron Works - in San Francisco.  They were rebuilding their company and wanted her to come back to her old job to be a part of the effort.  In December 1906, after being away for 7 months, Ada moved back to San Francisco.  She moved downtown to an apartment at Haight and Buchanan that had probably just been built.  She continued working as a stenographer for the Fulton Iron Works, which as an iron supplier and manufacturer was probably heavily involved in the reconstruction efforts.  It must have been exciting to have been living and working among those that were rebuilding the city. 

Ada continued living in the city until she died there in 1933. 

What I appreciate about history are the very important lessons we can learn from those who have come before us.  In this case, the threat of a similarly destructive earthquake is quite real.  Everyone who could be effected by one (from individuals to corporations and governments) should take the risks seriously and have a plan not just for surviving the disaster but for surviving and rebuilding in the subsequent weeks, months or years.  Ada's example is one for the average person to emulate.  She survived the disaster, fled to the correct or safe location for refugees, evacuated out of the city as soon as she could, found her support network and quickly set about pulling herself "up by her bootstraps" and finding work.  And instead of abandoning her city, she came back and was a part of its rebuilding effort.