Clemenceau, the canny politician who guided France through World War I, was equally well known for his ability to turn a phrase and for his appreciation of what used to be referred to as a well-turned ankle. One of Clemenceau's best known statements was to the effect that there was no more wonderful sight on earth than that of a woman's backside as she ascended the staircase on her way to a man's chambers. Far be it from me to disagree with such a learned statesman. A close second in the ranking of welcome visions, however, is that which greets the eye as one heads north on US 101 from San Francisco International Airport and ultimately sees the skyline of the City by the Bay, gleaming like a jewel, almost miragelike in its beauty.
San Francisco, notwithstanding its beauty, is the city that waits to die. It sits between two earth faults --- the relatively piddling Hayward and the more majestic San Andreas, which has the dubious distinction, at a length of over 600 miles, of being the world's longest faultline. The San Andreas fault, as author Dan Kurzman notes in DISASTER!: The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906, moves about an eighth of an inch per year. This is not much, even when measured against the process of government at work, but it is a disaster waiting to happen when there is a city nearby. This fact had been demonstrated on smaller scales before 1906. The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, however, wrote a new definition for the word "disaster."
Kurzman's account, painstakingly acquired from accounts written contemporaneously with the event, reads like a novel as he shifts points of view among the greatest and least of San Francisco's citizens at the time of the quake by paraphrasing everyone from the mayor of the city to a fireman to a young boy to a visiting opera virtuoso. Kurzman's detailing of exactly what happens in the moments when an earthquake first begins to occur, and, more specifically, what happened in the moments before the 1906 earthquake struck the city of San Francisco, are absolutely breathtaking. Readers of DISASTER! will feel as if they are walking across the cobblestone streets and hills of the city just moments after they have stopped undulating and before the fires begin their horrible rampage. Along the way, he inserts interesting factoids, such as the origin of the name of the Tenderloin District or the military history of the Presidio District --- none of which disrupts the flow of the story, and all of which will be of interest to non-residents and past and present residents of the city alike.
The earthquake however, and the immediate damage, devastation, and death that it caused, was arguably not the worst of what ultimately occurred. The fires that ravaged the city almost entirely destroyed it, and plagues decimated the population. While the official death count was close to 500, more realistic estimates concluded that close to 10,000 people died as the result of the quake and its residual and related effects. But the devastation wrought by this horrible act of nature is only part of the story. What is far more exciting is Kurzman's account of how, after the visitation of the apocalyptic Four Horsemen upon the city, the citizens of San Francisco almost immediately began to pull together in the face of overwhelming odds to rebuild the city that they loved.
DISASTER! is at once both a description of the dark and terrible side of nature and the indefatigable spirit of human nature to rise above and conquer the worst of calamities. Kurzman's tale of an event occurring almost 100 years ago makes the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 as relevant and pertinent as today's headlines.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on April 10, 2001