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Lessons from the San Francisco Earthquake

Posted by imawheatwatcher on February 8, 2009

William G. Hartley, “Sturdy Shoes and a Waterproof Tent,” Ensign, Oct 2001, 38
Church history teaches us many lessons about personal preparedness
“If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us!” wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1831. While it may sound surprising, a look at Church history can teach us about preparedness for our day.

Lessons from the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire
The U.S. earthquake against which all earthquakes are still measured is the San Francisco earthquake of 18 April 1906. The great quake caused terrible damage to buildings, roads, water systems, law enforcement, communications, and transportation. Fires broke out and caused more damage than the quake. Separations were common. Food, water, and sanitation became terrible problems.

Some 120 Church members—branch members, missionaries, and city visitors—were in the city at the time. Some wrote about how they survived the quake.  Their accounts identify several problems we could face if caught in a major earthquake or other catastrophes, such as hurricanes, cyclones, tornadoes, or fires, and they provide several preparedness ideas.

Lesson 1: Have sturdy shoes and durable clothing nearby in case of a sudden nighttime emergency, whether at home or away from home.
The 1906 quake struck before morning while people were sleeping. Frightened people ran into the streets in nightclothes and barefoot. Mission president Joseph Robinson hiked all over San Francisco trying to locate and help Church members. Broken bricks and glass quickly shredded his shoes.

Lesson 2: Have fire extinguishers in our homes.
Less than four blocks away from the Church’s mission home, a woman cooking breakfast accidentally started a fire. Firemen were too busy to respond to this “ham and eggs” fire. By the early afternoon, in order to keep the fire from spreading, firemen had to dynamite the area where the mission home stood.

Lesson 3: Have emergency water on hand in sturdy, non-glass containers.
Faucets went dry when the water mains broke. Thirsty people broke into stores and bars to find liquid. Thirsty members, who flocked to the mission home, were glad to be offered bottled fruit (fortunately the bottles had not broken).

Lesson 4: Have minimal cleaning items, such as moist towelettes, toothpaste, deodorant, face towels, and even small bags of detergent.
“It was a real trial,” said missionary Elder Leo Gardner, bound for the Pacific islands, “to endure our thirst and to go without washing our faces and hands which were getting blacker with the dust and smoke.”

Lesson 5: Have emergency food as we have been taught.
San Franciscans rushed to local markets to buy up bread, creating panic buying. By noon, as fires spread through the city, martial law was declared, and anyone trying to enter stores, even store owners, were shot on sight as looters. Within a day or two the city provided bread for people who stood in breadlines that were four people wide and blocks long.

Lesson 6: It is important to have two or three meeting places where family members can find each other in case disaster strikes and the family is scattered.
President Robinson’s toughest task for about a week was reuniting families separated during the disaster. Evacuations had become necessary. With homes damaged and the Church’s mission home dynamited to create a firebreak, members scattered. President Robinson tried to let members know where other members were camped out by posting in the mission home ashes a sign indicating where the main Latter-day Saint camp was located.

Lesson 7: Be prepared to leave cherished belongings.
Fleeing the fires, many families grabbed belongings and tried to haul them on foot. One trunk “weighed a ton,” as Harold Jenson described it in his diary.  One family member pushed a wheeled sewing machine. Harold strapped family belongings to his bicycle. Too burdened, the family eventually left some of their belongings on the roadside.

Lesson 8: Ignore wild rumors that spread in panics and don’t pass them on.
The earthquake severed the city’s communications with the outside world, so rumors spread that Los Angeles was destroyed, New York was no more, and that the Great Salt Lake had inundated Salt Lake City!

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