Series Blog

Taking Stock: Echoes of "The Great San Francisco Earthquake" in Haiti, Chile and New Orleans

Back in January I resolved that 2010 was the year I would watch every American Experience film. Sure, I’ve seen the sixty or so films that have been produced in my almost six years working for the series. But with a catalog more than 220 films deep, I felt I was just barely acquainted with our content. So I decided to start with film number one, and just keep watching until I had seen them all. Yes, it would require dedication. But I figured I could spread the 140 unwatched films over 365 days, maybe throw in a few Sunday afternoon marathons, and I should be in good shape. Well, here we are just shy of April, and I have to admit that I’ve fallen a bit off pace. I have managed to watch just one film—the very first ever produced for American Experience, The Great San Francisco Earthquake. (To be fair, in the past three months I have watched some of our upcoming films, like Roads to Memphis, My Lai, and Freedom Riders—all coming up this season and next.)

San Francisco EarthquakeThe Great San Francisco Earthquake originally broadcast in 1988, when there was no way to know if American Experience would succeed or fail as a series. Twenty-two years later, I think it’s safe to say the series has been a success (which is lucky for me, as I might otherwise be unemployed). The film chronicles the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck San Francisco on April 18, 1906. (Estimates on the magnitude vary. You can read more about that from USGS). To put that in context, the quake shook the Bay Area with 12,000 times the power of the atom bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, and is still considered (by most) to be the worst natural disaster ever to strike North America. The earthquake crippled the city. And what wasn’t destroyed by the quake was wiped out by the ensuing fires. In short, three days after the quake hit, the city—the whole city—lay in ruin, and would have to be rebuilt from the ground up.

By chance, I watched this film while Chile was still being rocked by aftershocks of the February 27 earthquake, and while scenes of the devastation wrought by the earthquake in Haiti still made the nightly news. Given that context, I fully expected to feel like I was watching the same story I was seeing play out on the news, only in black and white and with a different narrator. And to some extent, I was right. But to my surprise, it was a tragedy closer to home that I felt was flashing before my eyes—the story of a city knocked down by a natural disaster, but knocked out by a lack of infrastructure to cushion the blow. It was New Orleans, a city whose weakest links were laid bare by Hurricane Katrina. 

Spike Lee made a film about the aftermath of Katrina titled When the Levees Broke. If he were to make one about the quake, it would be called When the Water Mains Broke. In 1906, San Francisco would have killed for the amount of water that flowed into New Orleans nearly 100 years later. When the quake hit, it shattered water mains; hydrants ran dry, rendering the fire department helpless to battle the dozens of blazes that broke out simultaneously, eventually engulfing the entire city. All San Franciscans could do was watch while their city burned—which seemed all too familiar to watching the flood waters rise in New Orleans.

The similarities between the two stories were striking, but beyond that, what impressed me was the resonance of the story. This is a narrative that we at American Experience would be as drawn to today as we were 22 years ago. Luckily the film was made when it was, as the filmmaker was able to interview people who lived through the quake—a luxury we wouldn’t have today. It is the resilience of those people interviewed, and the thousands of others not interviewed, that we are drawn to. 

That theme of human resilience and determination is one that has run through countless American Experience films. Yes, there’s an emotional pull to these stories, but I think it’s something more that justifies the recurring theme. Stories of human resilience are worth telling not just because they make us feel good (although that’s nice), but because of what that resilience accomplishes. Resilience is what settled the West. It’s also the reason that, despite white settlement, Native American culture persists. Resilience powered the Civil Rights Movement. And it pushed forward nearly every major medical and technological advancement in history. 

Following the 1906 quake, thousands of people fled San Francisco. But thousands flocked to it as well. Longtime residents and newcomers alike rebuilt the city, brick by brick. (An interesting aside, and perhaps a portent of San Francisco’s future as a leader on environmental issues, workers actually scraped the old mortar from the bricks of crumbled buildings and used them to build new ones. Maybe the city’s first recycling program?) The quake destroyed a staggering 28,000 buildings. Just three years later, more than 20,000 had risen in their place. By any measure, that’s impressive. 

This summer will mark the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans has not been rebuilt, not entirely anyway. They’re working on that. But that doesn’t diminish the resilience of the people who stayed, nor does it tell the story of what they might accomplish. As told in Wright Thompson’s brilliantly written ESPN article, New Orleans has its soul intact, which provides a strong foundation. 

Today’s New Orleans residents live in the context of Katrina’s aftermath in the same way that San Francisco residents for many years lived in the context of the devastation of 1906 quake. Today, the scar left by that earthquake is the city that the residents rebuilt. 

In 2007, we produced a film on the history of New Orleans. Like all of our films, it was a history, one informed by those who are intimately acquainted with the city’s past, but inevitably told through a post-Katrina lens. The story of New Orleans continues to evolve. It has been and will continue to be interesting to see what permanent scar Katrina will leave on the city. 


Lauren Prestileo is a project manager for American Experience. She will be (slowly) watching all of the films in the series overthe coming year(s) and will share her thoughts with you as she does. 

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