A city built on made land, its buildings haphazardly constructed, an inadequate fire protection system, and proximity to an active fault line are the perfect preconditions to a cataclysmic earthquake disaster. 1906 San Francisco met all the requirements and exceeded others. So when the San Andreas Fault buckled under extreme pressure sending massive tremors through the surrounding area, the resulting destruction was hardly surprising.
The estimated 7.8 magnitude earthquake hammered San Francisco’s buildings and infrastructure, reducing it to rubble and rendering it useless. The survivors exhaled as the tremors subsided and the dust settled, believing the worst over; only to realize the nightmare had another face. Three full days of uncontained fires ravaged the ruined city, finishing what the earthquake began.
Estimates place the property damage at $400 million and $235 million in insured losses (or $5.62 billion when adjusted for inflation). The earthquake and fires destroyed three-quarters of San Francisco’s buildings and displaced nearly a quarter million people.
Although the poor building practices and nonexistent seismic code provisions were largely responsible for the city’s destruction, little substantive was done to improve the system. Indeed, during the mad rush to rebuild San Francisco in preparation for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, historians suggest the standards actually declined rather than improved, leaving the city more vulnerable than it was in 1906.
The city's business and political leaders downplayed the earthquake’s impact to allay outside investors’ fears and recast the disaster in terms of the fire. In fact, during Governor George C. Pardee’s post–disaster address he suggests, "this is not the first time that San Francisco has been destroyed by fire, I have not the slightest doubt that the City by the Golden Gate will be speedily rebuilt, and will, almost before we know it, resume her former great activity.”