Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Simon Winchester on Waiting for the Next Big San Francisco Earthquake

(This interview originally appeared in the Denver Post in November 2005)

By Dylan Foley

In his new book “The Crack of at the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906”(HarperCollins, $27.95), British journalist Simon Winchester tackles the San Francisco disaster while undertaking an American earthquake road trip, exploring the unstable geology of North America. According to Winchester, the oblivious residents of San Francisco and the Bay Area face a cataclysmic earthquake in the next 30 years.

“It may be the vulgar journalistic reality that it’s the hundredth anniversary of the San Francisco earthquake, but I was determined not to make this book a disaster book,” said the 61-year-old Winchester from his apartment in New York City. “The disaster should be placed in context-- in the historical context, the social context and the geological context.”

The San Francisco earthquake and resulting fire killed at least 3000 people and destroyed nearly 30,000 buildings. As Winchester proved in his 1998 breakout book, “The Professor and the Madman,” where he chronicled the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, he can turn history into vibrant, engrossing storytelling.

Winchester starts his book by visiting previous earthquake sites, including the disastrous 1811 earthquake that wiped out the thriving town of New Madrid, Illinois, a settlement that was never rebuilt. Winchester details the gigantic earthquake in Charleston, S.C. in 1886 and the perpetual tectonic grumblings of Oklahoma and Alaska.

“The earthquake roadtrip was important to remind people how seismically active this continent is,” said Winchester. “Some places like Kansas, however, are not active.”

(San Francisco City Hall after the earthquake)

The meat of the book is Winchester’s vivid retelling of the San Francisco earthquake on April 18, 1906 and the three days of fire that almost wiped out the city. The survivors of the earthquake include the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, who calmly dressed in his hotel room as buildings burned around him, and the photographer Ansel Adams, who as a 4-year-old boy broke his nose in the first tremors. Frantic citizens rushed north to escape a sea of flames.

“I wanted to provide a mosaic, to go throughout this huge mass of information and reminiscences and provide portraits,” said Winchester. “What did some of the survivors do? They had portraits of themselves taken with these huge walls of flames behind them.”

San Francisco was unprepared for its disaster. The wooden houses went up like kindling and the water tanks for firefighting were dry. The city’s seasoned fire chief was killed in the initial earthquake. Unlikely heroes were made. San Francisco’s political hack mayor Eugene Schmitz became a dynamic presence and military commandeer Brigadier General Frederick Funston acted decisively, dynamiting large fire breaks and saving large parts of San Francisco.

“You have Funston who rose to the occasion, “ said Winchester of a general who had a dark past in the Philippines in 1898, looting churches and killing prisoners. “At the moment his country needed him, he did the right thing. When you compare this to the behavior of officials in New Orleans over Katrina, it’s extraordinary. In 1906, people responded brilliantly.”

(Fire approaching during the San Francisco earthquake)

After the earthquake, San Francisco fell behind Los Angeles. “There is no doubt that in the rebuilding of San Francisco, the seeds were sown for its demotion to California’s second city, behind Los Angeles. Because it sits on the San Andreas fault, its sign of mortality, does it keep it from being number one?”

Winchester’s infectious enthusiasm for science comes from his training at Oxford University as a geologist. He spent his early twenties traipsing around places like the Arctic collecting rock samples. Once, when his rations were running low on the tundra, he had to shoot and eat an elderly, arthritic polar bear. “The polar bear had flatworms,” he said. “I don’t really know if they transfer to humans.”

During his travels for this book, Winchester is struck by the American hubris over where we place our cities. “America is such a young country that there is this arrogance that where we’ve planted our cities is where they should be,” he said. “New Orleans, in my opinion, should not be rebuilt. San Francisco will be flattened at some point. I am also not so sure about St. Louis and Charleston, S.C..”

Last year, Winchester toured the nine emergency centers in the counties surrounding San Francisco. “Every place has plasma screen television and satellite phones, all the most sophisticated technological devices to respond to disasters,” he said. “We saw what happened in the very glittering emergency centers in Baton Rouge last August. The technology was all there, but the intellectual, the human ability was not there.”

Scientists who study the seismic shifts in America give a 60 percent chance for a massive earthquake in the Bay Area by 2032, and it will be much worse than 1906. “If there is a major earthquake, it will either be in San Francisco or Oakland, which is brimming with extremely poor people and substandard housing, surrounded by Livermore Labs, where they design nuclear weapons, and the genetic engineering companies in nearby Richmond. There is toxic stuff out there.”

Disaster brain power may also be lacking. “(San Francisco) Mayor Gavin Newsom has appointed political allies to the emergency planning board,” said Winchester. “Are incompetent people going to respond to the next earthquake?”

For a picture of California obliviousness, Winchester went to Portola Valley, a town outside of San Francisco that straddles the most active part part of the San Andreas fault. Software designers sit in their expensive homes, swilling Chardonnay while the tectonic plates underneath grind against each other. “People there certainly don’t think about what is going to happen,” said Winchester with a resigned shrug.

Winchester’s 2003 book “Krakatoa” detailed the volcanic destruction of an island near present-day Indonesia and the resulting deadly tidal wave. There was an eerie parallel with the 2004 South Asian tsunami that killed 275,000 people. With the ink barely dry on “The Crack at the Edge of the World,” the similarities between the San Francisco earthquake and the destruction of New Orleans by hurricane have unsettled the author.

“It was a weird feeling,” said Winchester. “It is like having a premonition. After New Orleans, people wonder what will happen next. The next thing will be ‘the Big One’ in San Francisco.”

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