Source: Francis Zamora, San Francisco Department of Emergency Management

San Francisco Remembers 1906 Earthquake

At 5:12 a.m. this morning, sirens echoed throughout the streets of San Francisco to mark the anniversary of the deadliest disaster in California history. A 7.9-magnitude earthquake, dubbed the 1906 Great San Francisco Earthquake, crumpled infrastructures and caused massive fires in the Bay Area.

Shaking could be felt from the North Coast in Eureka to the Salinas Valley and to the south of San Francisco. The main shock lasted approximately 42 seconds, with a preceding strong foreshock shaking about 20-25 seconds.

Nearly 3,000 deaths at minimum were estimated as a result of the earthquake, though that total is still unconfirmed today. The earthquake itself was crippling, but subsequent fires accounted for more than 90 percent of the damage.

The majority of those deaths occurred in San Francisco, although neighboring cities such as Santa Rosa and San Jose also suffered devastation. The entire downtown of Santa Rosa was destroyed.

During today’s ceremony, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, along with other agency personnel including members of the Cal OES Coastal Region, stood in front of Lotta’s Fountain at the exact moment the earthquake struck 111 years ago. At 6 a.m., the city performed the symbolic painting of the golden hydrant. When San Francisco burst into flames in the following days, much of the city’s network of fire hydrants failed. Miraculously this hydrant, nicknamed “little giant,” is said to have been the only functioning hydrant and is credited with saving the historic Mission District neighborhood from a certain fiery doom.

Painted with a fresh coat of gold paint each April 18, the fire hydrant above Dolores Park now stands as a testament to the fire department’s valiant efforts to save the city against almost insurmountable odds.

Eighty-three years after the 1906 earthquake, San Francisco again dealt with a catastrophic disaster. Remembered for its interruption of the World Series, the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake contributed to 63 deaths and more than 3,700 injuries.

San Francisco now braces for what’s next. It’s not a matter of if another earthquake will strike, but just a matter of when.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) rolled out Version 1.2 of the ShakeAlert earthquake early warning system to the West Coast, which included Washington and Oregon along with California. The system does not yet support public warnings but this version allows selected early adopters to develop pilot implementations that demonstrate the system’s utility and develop technologies that pave the way for broader use, the USGS said.

As a disaster-prone state, California regularly responds to wildfires, earthquakes and floods, among other disasters. Extensive work is being done to not only prepare Californians but also to warn them of an impending earthquake. Using science and the technology of monitoring systems, the California Earthquake Early Warning Program is designed to create an alert when shaking waves generated by an earthquake are expected to arrive at a specific location.

Once fully developed, the system could give downtown Los Angeles 40 to 50 seconds of warning that a potentially damaging earthquake is headed from the southern San Andreas fault, giving time for elevators to stop at the next floor and open up, firefighters to open garage doors, high-speed trains to slow down to avoid derailment and medical personnel to stabilize patients on an operating table.

Click here to learn more about the earthquake early warning system.


Additional resources


Cal OES Earthquake, Tsunami & Volcano Programs

California Earthquake Authority



Photo credit: Francis Zamora

Jonathan Gudel

Jonathan Gudel is a Public Information Officer for the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES). Since joining Cal OES, he has assisted in the response and recovery efforts of the Aliso Canyon Gas Leak, the state's historic drought, the Oroville Dam Emergency Spillway Incident, unprecedented winter storms in 2017, the October (Sonoma County) and December (Santa Barbara County) 2017 wildfires, and statewide wildfire siege in 2018 . Previously, he worked in the newspaper industry for 12 years.

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