Philip L. Fradkin

Referenced Work:

Fradkin, Philip L. The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

In, The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906, Philip Fradkin demonstrates that human hubris in the civic official response, in elite usurpation of power, in building and rebuilding, and in dealing with psychological distress, was most responsible for the destruction from the 1906 Earthquake and Firestorms (xvii). After an extensive study of sources from before, during, and after April, 1906, Fradkin illustrates that the lack of preparation for urban disasters within civil government, military officials, and the elite, led to a precarious situation for people and property by 1906. As the urban disaster continued, military and civil officials reacted foolishly in dealing with the firestorms and their aftermath, with refugees, as well as in administering the outpouring of public relief. Significantly, this hubris continued as the elite and powerful usurped the functions of government to rebuild the physical city according to their own plan, and ignore the psychological effects of such a disruptive event.

Historiographically, Fradkin’s work is progressive in several ways from the traditional urban disaster narratives he outlines in the preface. Perhaps a function of Fradkin’s previous work as a journalist, what is particularly innovative and effective is the structure of the historical inquiry. First, in an elaboration of the traditional disaster history Fradkin begins before the disaster in order to set the scene. But instead of constructing a nostalgic urban environment due for inevitable destruction, Fradkin reveals the core of his thesis that the inability of the city to prepare for a known likelihood was the most significant factor in human deaths, the destruction of property, and the expense of relief and rebuilding; not as a function of institutional or technological insufficiencies.

Second, the strategy of following the patterns of power in relation to not only the aftermath but during and before a disaster illuminates the small and crucial dynamics which can be overshadowed by the destruction, such as the virtual suspension of civil liberties during the first conflagrations. The third innovative approach is assigning primary causation to the concept of human hubris. To say that the choice to proceed with a given program, building water conduits across known faults for instance, despite the evidence against is effective. Whether it was the decision to depend on a single source for the city’s water supply, or to use black-powder instead of dynamite to create firebreaks despite warnings, is very different than to say for instance that capital costs or political infighting prevented further disaster security measures.


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