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Shake and bake in California
on 23 November 2005
Describing an earthquake isn't easy. Too many bizarre things are happening simultaneously. Building rafters groan mournfully. Massive objects twist or shift position while fragile ones remain contentedly in place. In still air, trees sway alarmingly, perhaps shedding leafs. Fireplace chimneys will jump from a row of houses, sprawling across lawns and gardens. When calm returns, you will hear the inevitable question: "Did you feel that?"
Simon Winchester hasn't felt it, relying on others for description. The feeling of an earthquake, however, is less important to him than its causes and effects. In this sweeping account of the Great San Francisco and Fire of 1906, he ranges from the global movement of continental plates to the precise location of the actual spot where the rocks slipped in that April morning. San Francisco is but one city located in that violent circuit around the Pacific Ocean known as the Ring of Fire. From Tokyo to Valparaiso, places Winchester notes have had their share of destructive 'quakes, the surface of our planet is in constant motion. He recounts how the movement builds up pressure which is suddenly released to achieve a temporary equilibrium. Still, it wasn't the moving rock that destroyed much of San Francisco, but the fires that raged unchecked for four days as firemen remained helpless without water to combat them.
Winchester's depiction of the Earth's structures and their travels is interrupted by a detour of the history of the city. Fuelled by the Gold Rush, The City [it's always referred to in capitals by natives] grew at an astonishing rate. Originally a Spanish, then Mexican, community, the 49ers overturned the traditional lifestyle by sheer force of numbers. The bucolic rural population of the area gave way to urbanised "enterprise" and capitalism. Fortunes were made and lost almost as quickly as the changing tides. Although the burgeoning city suffered 'quakes and fires alike prior to 1906, the focus on the Main Chance prevented planning or even consideration of disasters. Everybody, except the Chinese, according to Winchester, was too busy making money or having fun. Or both.
An unexpected and severe upheaval in a community is bound to turn up surprises - and no few legends. San Francisco's mayor, a violinist selected as a figurehead by the local "Boss", proved amazingly stalwart and unperturbable as he coped with events. Eugene Schmitz had given San Francisco the unenviable reputation of being the tool of the Tammany Hall of the Pacific Coast, run by an Abe Ruef. Yet Schmitz rose to the occasion admirably, working in tandem with another surprising individual, Gen. Frederick Funston, who had been sequestered in the local army base to calm his rambunctious nature. Their combined efforts, which appeared draconian to many, prevented a calamitous situation from growing worse. Relief stations, temporary shelter, and swift transportation to safe havens helped many to survive and prevented outbreaks of diseases.
The author's description of various 'quakes and the processes deep in the Earth leading to them is presented from a sound scientific base. New instruments, such as those measuring the tiny ripples of rock movement beneath Parkfield, California, have achieved almost astonishing precision. Yet the hard science retreats to a shrugging of shoulders with hesitant and qualified murmuring at the inevitable question: "Where and when will the next one strike?" All the instruments and calculations leave us no wiser. The origins of earthquakes are buried deep in the Earth and the measurements would have to be continental in scope to be effective. Winchester turns from "historian" to crusader in his description of Portola Valley, a bedroom community south of The City. There, housing developments sit smugly astride the San Andreas Fault. With the working population divided between San Francisco and Silicon Valley, one would expect more care had gone into placing homes there. Winchester almost achieves an invective tone as he condemns the thoughtlessness of builders and buyers alike. When, not "if", Portola Valley will be devastated.
As he did with "Krakatoa", Winchester can't avoid finding a religious tie to natural disaster. Here, it's the bizarre sect known as the Pentecostals. A fringe group of fervent beliefs, the Pentecostals might have remained in obscurity with so many others of the type, had the 1906 shake not occurred. Taking the disaster as a divine signal, they used the event to propagate their message of more wrath from supernatural sources. It's an easy message to spread among the credulous and the Pentecostals have gained enormous membership and political clout. Fear is a great promoter of simple answers.
Although some fulminate against journalism as "history", Winchester works hard to impart his story. He's always an entertaining read, and if his approach and delivery are light, at least the account isn't fabricated. He piles in a wealth of interesting detail, most of it relevant and to the point. If he promotes a idea, even if it seems far-fetched or unrelated to our lives, his sincerity and caring sense make up for the vehemence. In addition to a compelling story, vividly told, the author gives us numerous maps and photographs to add to the narrative. If the story of The Great Earthquake and Fire are new to you, this is a good place to start. If nothing else, Winchester has brought the tale up to date. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]