In the early morning hours of April 18, 1906, a major American city was thrown into a catastrophe that almost wiped the place from the face of the earth (or Turquosia, as we're now calling it). Earthquake. San Francisco. Well, you saw the movie. According to Simon Winchester (and don't we love Simon Winchester? The Meaning of Everything. The Professor and the Madman. Krakatoa.) the quake hit at 5:12 am. and the first relief train from Los Angeles arrived by 11pm that night.
When Washington learned of the disaster (via Morse Code messages, for goodness' sake), President Taft and Congress got right to work. The first rescue trains were heading west by 4am on the 19th. That's less than 24 hours later, my friends. 1906. Morse Code. Trains. Help on its way within 24 hours. Yes, the Frisco mayor jumped right on it, but Taft and the Congress didn't sit around waiting for permission paperwork (and the California Governor isn't mentioned). Um. Could we maybe go back to Morse Code and trains? (And Taft? And a functioning Congress?)
Winchester tells the story of the San Fran postal officer who allowed any letter clearly from a quake survivor to travel without a stamp. He concludes:
And thus did hundreds of the homeless of San Francisco let their loved ones know of their condition - a courtesy of a time in which efficiency, resourcefulness and simple human kindness were prized in a manner we'd do well to emulate today.
I guess mail worked a little better in those days, too. I hope San Francisco - which is next on the "Big Three Disasters" list (we can cross off the New Orleans-hurricane-destruction and the New York terrorist attack) - has implemented its 1906 plan. Worked better than anything we've seen in 2005.
By the way, Winchester's new book is about the big quake: Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906.
And as long as you're reading the Winchester article in the New York Times, click over to this one about the future of the New Orleans music scene.