In A Crack in the Edge of the World by Simon Winchester, what was the societal response to the earthquake?

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

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Simon Winchester, in his book A Crack in the Edge of the World, discusses not only the consequences of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake but also the causes and ramifications of the dramatic and devastating event. He makes the case that the sixty-second, ground-shaking earthquake happened in a kind of cosmic timing.

A year, and a country, and a president, all of them a balance, all expectant and optimistic and apprehensive by turns as a whole world of changes—changes political, psychological, social, and, most of all, scientific—began to sweep in from the future. The year, in a state of such fine equilibrium, was unusually vulnerable to the unexpected, causing the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of San Francisco to cast a disproportionately long shadow on science, society, philosophy, religion, and art.

The country, he claims, was poised for a crisis, and San Francisco became the epicenter. 

The devastation caused by the 8.25 earthquake is well documented; what is not covered as well is how society, both locally and nationally, responded to this crisis. The city, of course, had to clean up the the rubble and determine how they were going to rebuild their city. They argued over many things, including the political debate of whether or not to rebuild Chinatown. In the end, very few significant changes were made, which is an interesting commentary on the politics of the people--or at least of the administration--of San Francisco. 

Another rather surprising effect of the earthquake was a psychological one. City officials tried to downplay the role of the earthquake in all the damage in their city; instead, they tried to eliminate the use of the word "earthquake" because it spoke of instability and too many people were frightened by the prospect of this act as the judgment of God on the city. They referenced the fires, instead.

Winchester also refers to some research on the reactions of those who survived the earthquake done by a Stanford psychologist William James. James observed an unexpected phenomenon.

He wrote later that people did indeed remark on how “awful” and “dreadful” the event was; but they were nonetheless full of some kind of wonder at being able to be part of so majestic a catastrophe. They eagerly watched it, James noted; they took pictures of it; and they thought themselves lucky to be enfolded in an event of truly historic significance. 

Many of those who lived through the disaster, then, responded both in shock and horror, but they also somehow took pride in having survived such a horrible event. (Today, of course, we often see this response in the survivors of traumatic experiences.)

On a less personal level and not surprisingly, this earthquake served as an impetus for society to respond with an urgency for prevention. People built safer, more earthquake-proof buildings and wrote contingency plans for the next earthquake incident. On a very personal level (also not surprisingly), those who survived also spent some time getting their souls ready for another episode. When faced with their mortality, they discovered a need to re-connect with God. 

The ripple effects of an act like this make their way into all aspects of personal, civic, and cultural life. None of these reactions seems particularly surprising to our modern society, as we have seen so many crises enter our living rooms via television; however, a hundred years ago, these observations were uniquely fresh and insightful.

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