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San Francisco's Earthquakes, Then and Now

Early in the morning of April 18, 1906, San Francisco police sergeant Jesse Cook noticed horses starting to panic. Then he saw the street ahead of him ripple. “It was as if the waves of the ocean were coming towards me,” he said.

Seconds later, Cook was knocked down by the Great San Francisco Earthquake. Amazingly, most of San Francisco's buildings survived at first. However, the terrible shaking set off fires that raged for three days. These fires destroyed roughly three-quarters of the city, and about 200,000 people were left homeless.

Earthquakes take place when the Earth's crust moves along huge cracks called faults. Two major faults–the San Andreas and the Howard–lie near San Francisco. In 1906, many San Franciscans knew that more earthquakes could rock their city. Still, they wanted to stay.

Stronger Buildings

San Franciscans helped each other deal with problems caused by the 1906 earthquake and fires. Then they planned ways to build a stronger city. City officials set up strict codes to make sure that buildings were strong enough to survive other earthquakes. They planned ways that would keep the city safe from fires. By 1915, San Francisco was largely rebuilt. It included a new Marina District that rested on earthquake rubble in San Francisco Bay.

Greater Safety

In 1989, another earthquake struck the area. It was less powerful than the 1906 earthquake. It was also not so close to the center of the city. Even so, the damage was serious in some places. Many people in San Francisco and the surrounding regions thought that the San Francisco area was not yet prepared for a major earthquake.

City officials examined the areas of ruin and tightened building codes again. They identified buildings and bridges that needed to be stronger. San Francisco trained 13,000 volunteers in first aid and rescue techniques that might be needed in an earthquake.

Today, San Francisco has a population of nearly 800,000. The San Francisco Bay area, with its surrounding towns and cities, has more than 2.4 million people. In 2004, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system that serves the San Francisco Bay area began a new program to make sure that trains, buses, tunnels, and tracks will be strong enough in a major earthquake. The city is preparing people to be safe during an earthquake, wherever they may be.