Political incompetence didn't cause the 1906 Earthquake, but it certainly helped exacerbate the damage and the subsequent fire, according to Kevin Starr, a professor of history at the University of Southern California, speaking at a conference on earthquakes and preparedness taking place this week in San Francisco to commemorate the disaster.
Fires broke out immediately after the quake struck. With water mains broken by the shaking, officials in City Hall issued orders to start dynamiting buildings to create a fire break. Instead, blowing up buildings provided fuel for the firestorm, said Starr. Further, dynamiting was not done in a coordinated fashion. There was no central authority to direct which buildings got blown up or when to stop.
"San Francisco was literally burnt to the ground through ineptitude," he said. "There was no coherent plan of action."
Historians began to re-examine the response to the fire a few years ago with an exhaustive search of original source material at the University of California's Bancroft library.
Starr also pointed out that martial law was never declared. Brigadier General Funston consistently said that the mayor was still in charge and that the army was in the city only to help.
It is also unclear why the shoot-to-kill looters order was issues. The reports of thugs biting off the earlobes or fingers of people with jewelry were exaggerated, Starr said. Mayor Eugene Schmitz issued the order almost spontaneously. His closest advisors were so shocked by it that they made Schmitz write it out and insisted that it get printed out on a sheet of paper before issuing it. In the end, probably 15 to 30 people got shot, said Starr.
Despite bureaucratic ineptitude, individuals behaved with panache during the disaster, Starr added.
Starr also noted that individuals, in retrospect, claimed that animals were acting strangely and there were unusual lights in the sky the night before the quake. Some scientists believe that changes in magnetic fields can warn of quakes and cause these symptoms.