This month marks the 100th anniversary of the paradigmatic American catastrophe, the San Francisco Earthquake and fire of April 18, 1906:
At almost precisely 5:12 a.m., local time, a foreshock occurred with sufficient force to be felt widely throughout the San Francisco Bay area. The great earthquake broke loose some 20 to 25 seconds later, with an epicenter near San Francisco. Violent shocks punctuated the strong shaking which lasted some 45 to 60 seconds. The earthquake was felt from southern Oregon to south of Los Angeles and inland as far as central Nevada.
In the public's mind, this earthquake is perhaps remembered most for the fire it spawned in San Francisco, giving it the somewhat misleading appellation of the "San Francisco earthquake". Shaking damage, however, was equally severe in many other places along the fault rupture. The frequently quoted value of 700 deaths caused by the earthquake and fire is now believed to underestimate the total loss of life by a factor of 3 or 4. Most of the fatalities occurred in San Francisco, and 189 were reported elsewhere.
The scale of the devastation and loss of life was stunning and traumatized the Nation and the Bay area for years. After the fact, the lessons learned were incorporated into building codes (fireproofing in buildings, sturdier construction) and eventually our technology made it possible to experience later earthquakes as minor disasters marked by much less physical damage to structures and minimal loss of life. Earthquakes of magnitude 7 in America are no longer traumatic, overwhelming catastrophes; they are manageable natural disasters.
This week recordings of the 911 calls from 9/11 were released. All but one of the recordings has the caller's voice omitted and all we hear are the phone operators, who realize with growing anguish through the morning that they are not dealing with a typical emergency call. Here is an exchange between two people who are slowly becoming aware of the enormity of the disaster:
"This is operator 1490. I have a call from a lady at the Bank of New York. She states that the World Trade Center..."
"Yeah we got that already."
"She states that at the northwest side, that there's a woman hanging. There’s an unidentified person hanging from the top of the building. OK, that’s all the information. That's One World Trade Center."
"Alright, we have quite a few calls."
Put yourself in their shoes for a moment. They have been trained to know how to respond to fires, assaults, man with a gun calls, but nothing in their experience could prepare them for such an unprecedented event, two passenger jets slamming into two skyscrapers in New York City. 9/11 was a traumatic event in the life of New York and our nation, but what is often lost when discussing traumatic events is a precise understanding of what it means for a system to be traumatized.