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Then and Now
Photo: Alain Fradette
Decades later, one of the survivors of the devastating earthquake in San Francisco shared her memories of being a ten-year-old girl whose life changed dramatically and completely shortly after 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906. In the recording, she talked about feeling the roll of the earth. But unlike other quakes, this increased in intensity. The building began to shift. As the family fled, they grabbed what they could. Chaos reigned outside as frightened people realized that ruptured gas lines were igniting.

Thousands of people, that morning, left San Francisco, fleeing the after effects of the most destructive earthquake to hit the United States. Many rode the ferries across the bay to Oakland. Others trudged to refugee camps along the water or in areas bordering the smoldering city. In shock they watched the glow of massive fires sweeping through the city that had been called the Paris of the West. The fire raged uncontrollably for three days, flames towering to 20 feet and reaching temperatures around 2000 degrees—hot enough to melt glass and steel.

As one reads the statistics—about half of the city’s 400,000 residents were left homeless and approximately 3,000 died as a result of the earthquake and fire—one is reminded of the impact Hurricane Katrina had on New Orleans. Massive changes followed massive destruction.

A Dwindling Club

Every year survivors have gathered to observe the anniversary of this life-changing event. Now the gathering is small, with most more than a hundred years old. Honorary membership has been extended to those conceived the night of the disaster.

Following Hurricane Katrina, leadership of towns along the Gulf coast of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama proclaimed repeatedly, “We are strong. We will overcome.” Six months after the hurricane, residents still look shell-shocked and the widespread destruction continues to stun visitors. But as San Francisco has taught us, the region will be redefined. Decades from now, survivors of some other massive disaster will look back and take hope in the indomitable human spirit as demonstrated during the recovery efforts of San Francisco and the Gulf Coast.

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