Getting set to commemorate ‘the Big One’
Online archives, present-day disaster preparedness, and future symposia are among efforts related to the 1906 earthquake already being planned on campus

By Steven Finacom, Capital Projects



Quake-displaced refugees from San Francisco encamped on California Field, the Berkeley football team’s home ground. The then-new facility was located on the present site of Hearst Gymnasium.
Photo courtesy University Archives, The Bancroft Library

29 January 2003 | San Francisco, as everyone knows, was laid in ruins by the great earthquake and fire of April 18, 1906.

With the centennial of that epochal event in California history only a few years off, a number of campus departments are starting to make plans not only to commemorate the disaster but to look beyond it at a wide variety of related academic and public-policy topics.

Berkeley has good reason to pay close attention to the lessons of 1906. Future earthquakes are an ever-present concern on a campus bisected by the Hayward Fault and within shaking distance of several other significant faults, including the massive San Andreas, whose slippage caused the 1906 temblor.

This spring, Professor of Architecture Stephen Tobriner, an internationally known authority on the history of reconstruction following earthquakes, and his colleague Professor Mary Comerio, an expert in seismic design and the economic consequences of disaster losses, have organized a graduate-level class on seismic design, focusing on the ongoing UC Berkeley retrofit program. Students will prepare case studies of new and retrofitted campus buildings for inclusion in a publication (or campus guide) planned to coincide with the 2006 centennial of the quake and fire.
Says Tobriner, a former chair of the campus Seismic Review Com-mittee: “There’s nothing like the Berkeley campus in the history of the world” when it comes to the practical application of seismic design to old and new buildings. A considerable variety of seismic-retrofit strategies have been used to reinforce existing buildings and construct new ones, making the campus something of a practical laboratory for earthquake engineering techniques.

Much of the seismic-retrofit work recently completed or currently under way on campus is the result of the SAFER program initiated in the late 1990s, involving a detailed engineering analysis of the structural condition and safety of Berkeley campus buildings. The SAFER process yielded a ten-point plan ( for improving both the seismic safety of specific buildings and the overall state of disaster preparedness on campus. “Chancellor Berdahl has actively followed through on implementing many of the recommendations of the 1997 SAFER Report,” says Sarah Nathe, who works on improving campus disaster resistance in the office of the vice provost for academic planning and facilities. She notes that eight of the ten key SAFER action items have been completed.

Dozens of Berkeley campus facilities, from the venerable Hearst Memorial Mining Building to the more modern Barker, Wurster, and Barrows Halls, have been retrofit, and others are scheduled for work. “By 2006, a significant number of SAFER program projects will have been accomplished after a decade of intense, non-stop campus effort,” says Christine Shaff, communications manager for Capital Projects. “That means that for the 1906 centennial we will be able to showcase, explain, and interpret one of the most ambitious seismic-retrofit programs anywhere.”

Economic aspects of disaster
The effect of natural disasters on public policy, the economy, and finance will be a key focus for campus experts in 2006 if the Haas School of Business assembles a contemplated multidisciplinary symposium on economic, legal, and public-policy issues related to earthquakes.

Larry Rosenthal, executive director of the Berkeley Program on Housing and Urban Policy at Haas, is beginning to plan for the symposium. “There are all sorts of fascinating aspects of natural disasters relevant to the business world via economic, planning, and policy,” he says. “For example, how are insurance and financial markets affected? How do businesses, governments, and communities anticipate housing, transportation, and other infrastructure impacts, and how do those sectors of the economy function after a disaster?” Many of the best experts on such subjects are already at Berkeley, notes Rosenthal.

While such earthquake-themed events will look primarily to the future, some campus programs are busy concentrating on the past. The Bancroft Library is in the midst of an ambitious cooperative effort with other institutions — including the California Historical Society, the California State Library, Stanford University, and the Huntington Library — to digitize and place online vast numbers of written documents about and photographs of the 1906 earthquake.

“A myriad of images, recollections, and records are being gathered from various archives,” says Theresa Salazar, a Bancroft librarian. “The online archive will be permanent, containing everything from Jack London’s photographs of the disaster to Berkeley Professor Andrew Lawson’s comprehensive report on the 1906 earthquake.” It is hoped that the digital archive will be open to the public in 2005. A companion book by Philip Fradkin, consultant to the project, is being planned through UC Press. There will of course be many 1906-related events off-campus, as well as an influx of experts into the region. The Earthquake Engineering Research Institute and the Seismological Society of America have both scheduled their annual spring meetings for San Francisco in 2006, and several local museums, including the Oakland Museum of California, are planning exhibits.

Campus group planning for the centennial
Berkeley faculty and staff interested in a 1906 commemoration began gathering regularly last fall in an informal working group organized by Lind Gee of the campus Seismological Laboratory. The group is eclectic, including architecture professors and economists, seismologists and historians, disaster-preparedness planners and librarians.

“We’re very interested in finding more participants, both individuals and campus departments,” says Gee. “Many ideas are percolating, and the broader the campus representation, the more varied and useful the Centennial commemoration will be.”

Gee encourages any and all interested individuals to connect with the group, which is meeting quarterly and has set up a small website ( Those interested in connecting with or participating in the centennial-planning group can phone Lind Gee at 643-9449, or check the website. The group’s next meeting is Wednesday, Feb. 19, from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. in 220 McCone, and new participants are encouraged to attend.


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