In A Crack in the Edge of the World by Simon Winchester, what effect did the disaster have on the society?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Any time there is a natural disaster, there are ripples of effects and consequences which go much farther than the incident itself. What happened in San Francisco on April 18, 1906, is the specific subject matter of A Crack in the Edge of the World by Simon Winchester; however, the book considers both the local, more personal devastation as well as the resulting nationwide ramifications of the earthquake.

Winchester spends nearly half the book setting the stage for one minute of tragedy and its aftermath. First, he introduces us to some of the individuals whose stories he will later tell us as the earthquake happens. Then he details how the earth moves and explains the shifting of the tectonic plates in a way that helps his readers understand what is happening and why for the roughly sixty-second earthquake.  

When he finally gets to that minute of crisis in chapter nine, we see the immediate devastation of an 8.25 earthquake caused by a rupture in the San Andreas Fault. The violent shaking destroyed almost five hundred blocks of the city, caused twenty-five thousand buildings to collapse,

broke open gas mains, cut off electric power lines throughout the Bay area, and effectively destroyed the gold rush capital that had stood there for a half century.

What follows the initial damage is even worse. For three days, San Francisco is plagued with fires caused by the broken gas lines and by downed electrical wires. Of course the injured have to be tended to, and the dead bodies are either buried or burned. Most of the damaged buildings are not salvageable and will have to be rebuilt. Because of the chaos that ensues, the city is forced to maintain a strong military presence (brought in from all over the country) to keep order, shoot looters, and control the gawkers who want to see the devastation up close. The sale of certain items, such as candles and liquor, are banned as safety hazards, as well.

Aside from these horrible short- and long-term consequences of the earthquake on the city, some interesting and perhaps positive things also happened. Winchester calls these things "downstream effects," and he names three of them:

Pentacostalism, conservative Christianity, and certain political ramifications that are today being felt around the world.

One church, for example, literally grows by thousands after the earthquake because, on April 15 the pastor proclaimed that "We are expecting a sign from the Lord." Three days later, of course, the earthquake hit. This natural disaster in what was "arguably the most sinful of all American cities," was seen as the judgment of God and had a significant impact on religion as people flocked to this church.

Once the damage is done and the "mess" has been cleaned up, the city has to decide what the new San Francisco is going to look like. Many would say that the city planners missed an opportunity to make the city glorious and grand, but the politics and pressures of the day kept things much as they were before the earthquake happened. 

One final effect of the earthquake on the entire country (and eventually the rest of the world) was the institution of more safety procedures, such as improved earthquake response plans and more effective, earthquake-resistant building codes.

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