Earthquakes and the Human Will: Trying to Imagine the Incredible

The news from the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan showed us incredible images: waves engulfing entire farms, ships rolling into parking lots, cars washing down the street like dead leaves, and uprooted houses ambling through the streets. But the truly incredible is yet to come, for the insurance companies are beginning to assess the damage.

The earliest estimate put the cost near $35 billion, but that figure proved premature. Damage from aftershocks and the nuclear-plant explosion is continuing to add to the total costs for reconstruction.

A second estimate of damages, released a few days ago, has raised the estimate to $170 billion. To put that cost in perspective, imagine twice the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina ($80 billion.)

The U.S. has rarely experienced earthquakes on the scale seen by Japan. Our one, truly disastrous quake in a modern city came in 1906. On April 18, a force 8.0 quake (one-tenth the size of the Japanese quake) hit San Francisco, leveling most of the city and starting fires from ruptured gas lines. Roughly 80% of the city was destroyed and half the city’s residents left homeless. Yet many San Franciscans responded to this adversity with determination and ingenuity.

I came across a good illustration of this spirit in a 1947 Post article about A. P. Giannini, founder of the Bank of America. In that April morning in 1906, the 36-year-old president of the city’s “Bank of Italy”—

found himself flung out of bed, and the whole house, the floor and the earth underneath heaving and shaking. He calmed his excited family, dressed quickly and hurried off by the commuters’ train to San Francisco, sixteen miles up the peninsula. The train finally halted several miles south of the city, over which a great pall of smoke already hung, and A. P. loped along the last few miles, passing processions of panic-stricken refugees. But when he arrived at his bank a little after eight A.M., he found it open for business as usual. The cashier, by habit, had drawn the bank’s $300,000 in gold, and notes and securities worth over $1,000,000 more, from the vaults of the Crocker Bank, where they were stored every night.

“The fire that was spreading all over the downtown section,” Giannini relates, “was only three blocks away, I figured we had about an hour to get out.” At once he commandeered two produce wagons from his old commission house and ordered his clerks to load them up with the bank’s pouches of gold, its valuable papers, records, and its one type-writer. These were covered over with the contents of a dozen crates of oranges and vegetables that served as camouflage.

All that night the little Bank of Italy convoy plodded southward, on the alert for bandits. It was dawn when they reached the Giannini home in San Mateo and buried the bank’s treasure in its garden. Without sleeping, A.P. hurried back to San Francisco, to find most of the downtown business and residential quarter, some 25,000 buildings, leveled, and the fire still spreading.

The morning after the quake, the leading businessmen of San Francisco met outside town. Many were in despair. Several bankers suggested they declare a six-month moratorium, Giannini spoke up:

View of the wreckage following the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco.
Large swaths of San Francisco were laid in ruin. At least 3,000 people were killed in the quake.Library of Congress

“If you keep your banks closed until November, you might as well never open them, for there will be no city left. The time for doing business is right now. We must help. I propose, when I leave this meeting, to start business immediately.”

That day he had a desk set out on the pier in his old commission-house district, all in ruins, and had a clerk there accepting deposits and honoring checks for their customers, the people who were shipping in vitally needed foodstuffs as always. A cardboard sign on a stick showed the Bank of Italy was open for business, though its till carried a quota of only $10,000 cash, dug up each morning from the garden in San Mateo.

Giannini offered credit liberally to people who wanted to rebuild homes or business properties.He opened a Calamity Day Book for the customers who borrowed money in that time of disaster. All of them, he says, repaid him; many flourished again, and formed a loyal regiment of depositors and stockholders that soon grew into legions.

No doubt, in the months ahead, we will read similar stories about the endurance and sacrifice of the Japanese people who are facing these incredibly hard times.

If it’s hard to imagine the power that could destroy a city so thoroughly, try imagining the power of the human spirit that will overcome and rebuild the land.