September 08, 2005

Look where we've come in 100 years

From today's New York Times, a summary of the American response to the destruction of San Francisco almost 100 years ago:

THE last time a great American city was destroyed by a violent caprice of nature, the response was shockingly different from what we have seen in New Orleans.

Nobody in the "cool gray city of love," as the poet George Sterling called it, had the faintest inkling that anything might go wrong on the early morning of April 18, 1906. Then at 5:12 a.m. a giant granite hand rose from the California earth and tore through the city.

In the end, at least 3,000 were dead and 225,000 homeless. A stentorian Army general named Frederick Funston realized he was on his own - his superior officer was at a daughter's wedding in Chicago - and sent orders to the Presidio military base. Within two hours scores of soldiers were marching in to the city, platoons wheeling around the fires, each man with bayonet fixed and 20 rounds of ball issued; they presented themselves to Mayor Eugene Schmitz by 7:45 a.m. - just 153 minutes after the shaking began.

The first relief train, from Los Angeles, steamed into the Berkeley marshalling yards by 11 o'clock that night. The Navy and the Revenue Cutter Service, like the Army not waiting for orders from back East, ran fire boats and rescue ferries.

Washington learned of the calamity in the raw and unscripted form of Morse Code messages, with no need for the interpolations of anchormen or pollsters. Congress met in emergency session and quickly passed legislation to pay all imaginable bills. By 4:00 a.m. on April 19, William Taft, President Theodore Roosevelt's secretary of war, ordered rescue trains to begin pounding toward the Rockies; one of them, assembled in Virginia, was the longest hospital train ever assembled.


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