The long count

April 16, 2006

As San Francisco marks the 100th anniversary of its great earthquake and fire this Tuesday, it's worth asking, in light of the terrible natural calamity of our own century, about the aftermath. What followed the disaster?

It has been almost eight months since Hurricane Katrina made New Orleans its biggest and most famous casualty. Thousands of the city's citizens are still scattered, thousands of its homes still uninhabitable. Huge amounts of work have yet to get under way, stalled by insurance squabbles and the wait for federal funds and regulations (some of which were announced last week) and the sustained shock over what happened. The rebuilding of San Francisco suggests that all of this is sadly to be expected - and that cities that have suffered near-mortal wounds cannot simply bounce back. Reasonable decisions made to get life flowing again can pose terrible risks in the long term - it happened in San Francisco and it's happening now in New Orleans - but they still may be the best choices out of an array of bad alternatives.

In September, it would have been easy to look at history and say that the relief effort in 1906 was far superior to the grotesque disaster of 2005. Here's just one example: Within 10 days, every tent owned by the U.S. Army - about 200,000 of them - had been pitched in and around San Francisco. But some were still being lived in three years later, says Simon Winchester, author of A Crack in the Edge of the World, and that's the key. After the initial impressive relief performance, the residents and leaders of the city accomplished very little for nearly the next year.

"They were like a boxer who had been knocked to his knees, and was punch drunk and far more groggy than you'd expect," Mr. Winchester says. There were ambitious plans to redesign the city, but nothing came of them. As in New Orleans, ethnic tensions consumed a tremendous amount of energy, though a century ago they had to do with Chinese and Japanese immigrants. Insurance companies said they'd pay for fire but not earthquake damage; in New Orleans, the same argument concerns wind or water.

Finally, with the mayor and board of supervisors under indictment, and with countercharges that relief funds had been pocketed by their political enemies, it was decided to rebuild San Francisco pretty much the way it had been. The chance of another earthquake seemed sufficiently remote. Today, new federal guidelines for rebuilding flood-damaged homes in New Orleans are based on the same thinking - the plan is to raise them 3 feet, which won't put them out of harm's way but is cheaper than raising them 5 feet or 10 feet. At the same time, the government says it will build better levees.

In 1906, geologists didn't know about plate tectonics, and didn't realize that the San Andreas fault is bound to let go again. In 2006, meteorologists do understand the makings of big hurricanes, and how they can interact with a city that's below sea level. Is it a risk worth taking, nonetheless? It might be. A rebuilt San Francisco, after all, has made it through 100 years.

But it spent much of the past century slipping from prominence, even while holding on to its manifest charms. New Orleanians know that story already, but they're determined to have their city again. These will be difficult years for the Big Easy. It will be wounded and diminished and precarious, but like San Francisco, it will also be a national touchstone, a living monument to an imprudent and admirable perseverance.

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