Thursday, September 08, 2005

Doing Things the Right Way: What the Past Can Teach Us, If We Let It

This evening I took some time to wander again through the day's newspaper. I stopped on the editorial page of the New York Times when I came across the headline of the attached piece by Simon Winchester titled "Before the Flood."

Many people writing during the past week, as the devastating effects of the natural disaster in New Orleans have spiraled out of control to overwhelming and stunning proportions, have discussed Hurricane Katrina’s far-reaching destruction alongside that of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. In fact, there seems to no disputing that the two events resemble each other in the ways that nature indiscriminately wasted the two cities. It's clear from all the pictures being spread across the media that New Orleans will require rebuilding just as did San Francisco.

Another thing the media reports agree on is the missed opportunities by a vast network of government agencies to respond more immediately to the devastation of the hurricane. Simon Winchester's Times editorial reminds us of the tremendous efforts by a much smaller and far less sophisticated nation to reach out to a city and its people at a time of desperate need. It's a humbling piece of writing, and humility would seem to be the most appropriate response our government leaders could demonstrate as they address this current national crisis.

September 8, 2005
Before the Flood

THE last time a great American city was destroyed by a violent caprice of nature, the response was shockingly different from what we have seen in New Orleans. In tone and tempo, residents, government institutions and the nation as a whole responded to the earthquake that brought San Francisco to its knees a century ago in a manner that was well-nigh impeccable, something from which the country was long able to derive a considerable measure of pride.

This was all the more remarkable for taking place at a time when civilized existence was a far more grueling business, an age bereft of cellphones and Black Hawks and conditioned air, with no Federal Emergency Management Agency to give us a false sense of security and no Weather Channel to tell us what to expect.

Nobody in the "cool gray city of love," as the poet George Sterling called it, had the faintest inkling that anything might go wrong on the early morning of April 18, 1906. Enrico Caruso and John Barrymore - who both happened to be in town - and 400,000 others slumbered on, with only a slight lightening of eggshell-blue in the skies over Oakland and the clank of the first cable cars suggesting the beginning of another ordinary day.

Then at 5:12 a.m. a giant granite hand rose from the California earth and tore through the city. Palaces of brick held up no better than gold-rush shanties of pine and redwood siding; hot chimneys, electric wires and gas pipes toppled, setting a series of fires that, with the water mains broken and the hydrants dry, proceeded over the next three dreadful days and nights to destroy what remained of the imperial city. In the end, at least 3,000 were dead and 225,000 homeless.

Everyone who survived remembered: there was at first a shocked silence; then the screams of the injured; and then, in a score of ways and at a speed that matched the ferocity of the wind-whipped fires, people picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, took stock and took charge.

A stentorian Army general named Frederick Funston realized he was on his own - his superior officer was at a daughter's wedding in Chicago - and sent orders to the Presidio military base. Within two hours scores of soldiers were marching in to the city, platoons wheeling around the fires, each man with bayonet fixed and 20 rounds of ball issued; they presented themselves to Mayor Eugene Schmitz by 7:45 a.m. - just 153 minutes after the shaking began.

The mayor, a former violinist who had previously been little more than a puppet of the city's political machine, ordered the troops to shoot any looters, demanded military dynamite and sappers to clear firebreaks, and requisitioned boats to the Oakland telegraph office to put the word out over the wires: "San Francisco is in ruins," the cables read. "Our city needs help."

America read those wires and dropped everything. The first relief train, from Los Angeles, steamed into the Berkeley marshalling yards by 11 o'clock that night. The Navy and the Revenue Cutter Service, like the Army not waiting for orders from back East, ran fire boats and rescue ferries. The powder companies worked overtime to make explosives to blast wreckage.

Washington learned of the calamity in the raw and unscripted form of Morse Code messages, with no need for the interpolations of anchormen or pollsters. Congress met in emergency session and quickly passed legislation to pay all imaginable bills. By 4:00 a.m. on April 19, William Taft, President Theodore Roosevelt's secretary of war, ordered rescue trains to begin pounding toward the Rockies; one of them, assembled in Virginia, was the longest hospital train ever assembled.

Millions of rations were sped in to the city from Oregon and the Dakotas; within a week virtually every military tent in the Army quartermaster general's stock was pitched in San Francisco; and within three weeks some 10 percent of America's standing army was on hand to help the police and firefighters (whose chief had been killed early in the disaster) bring the city back to its feet.

To the great institutions go the kudos of history, and rightly so. But I delight in the lesser gestures, like that of the largely forgotten San Francisco postal official, Arthur Fisk, who issued an order on his personal recognizance: no letter posted without a stamp, and that clearly comes from the hand of a victim, will go undelivered for want of fee. And thus did hundreds of the homeless of San Francisco let their loved ones know of their condition - a courtesy of a time in which efficiency, resourcefulness and simple human kindness were prized in a manner we'd do well to emulate today.

Simon Winchester is the author of the forthcoming book "A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906."