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The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 struck San Francisco and the Northern California coast at 5:12 am on 18 April 1906. The quake’s magnitude was between 7.7 and 8.25 on the moment magnitude scale; the most commonly accepted magnitude of this quake is 7.8. The epicenter was offshore, about 2 miles (3 km) from the city. The San Andreas fault ruptured northward and southward for a distance of 296 miles (477 km). The total death count of the earthquake and the resulting fire is estimated to be above 3,000 and is the greatest loss of life from a natural disaster in California history.


The Quake and Subsequent Fires


The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 occurred on 18 April 1906 at 5:12 am. For years, the epicenter was thought to be located near the town of Olema, in the Point Reyes area of Marin County; this theory was based on evidence of earth displacement in the area. However, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) now shows that the epicenter was probably near Mussel Rock, about 2 miles (3 km) from the city, on the coast south of San Francisco. The occurrence of a local tsunami of approximately 3 in (8 cm), lasting 40-45 minutes, supports this theory. The USGS believes that this earthquake registered a powerful 7.8 on the moment magnitude scale.


The earthquake ruptured gas mains, which caused the more than thirty fires which were responsible for at least 90% of the event’s destruction. These flames consumed 25,000 buildings on a total of 490 city blocks. Firefighters, attempting to create firebreaks by demolishing buildings with dynamite, actually destroyed many structures that might have survived. The city’s Fire Chief, Dennis T. Sullivan, who had had the training destruction, was killed in the initial quake. The quake also broke the city’s water mains, leaving the city fire department unable to fight the fires.




Contemporary reports placed the death toll at 376; however, government officials actually fabricated this figure for fear that revealing the real death toll would harm the real estate market. In fact, the death toll is estimated to be above 3,000. Most of these deaths occurred within the city of San Francisco, but at least 189 of the fatalities occurred in other parts of the Bay Area.


225,000 to 300,000 people were left homeless out of a total population of 410,000. Refugees evacuated to Golden Gate Park, the Presidio, the Panhandle and the beaches of Ingleside and North Beach. Two years later, in 1908, many of these camps were still fully operational.


Property losses exceeded $400 million; insured losses were tallied at $235 million (or $5.69 billion in today’s money).





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