It was dumb luck that most of San Francisco was fast asleep when the city began shaking at 5:12 am on April 18, 1906. Had it been later in the morning, main arteries clogged with traffic, or midday, the city center humming, the carnage would have been worse. Instead, most people woke abruptly and took cover when the quake didn’t pass quickly enough to be mistaken for a bad dream. It lingered for nearly a minute, an eternity for terrified San Franciscans. In an instant, the ground in some parts of town liquefied; whole blocks of poorly constructed tenements slumped into piles of rubble, entombing those inside. Even monumental buildings, constructed to embody state power or Gilded Age prosperity — the US Post Office; the West’s most luxurious hotels and grandest office buildings; and the still-new City Hall, a Beaux-Arts monument that captured San Francisco’s ostentatious sense of itself at the dawn of a new century — all suffered significant structural damage. It was, without question, the worst disaster in a city whose short history had already been punctuated by earthquakes and fires. And the horror had just begun.

Then the shaking stopped. The city righted itself. The infamous San Andreas Fault, where two massive tectonic plates rub each other the wrong way for approximately 750 miles, along much of California’s length, had released some of its vast storehouse of energy. People crept from their hiding places, from beneath tables or beds, and began looking for loved ones, surveying the damage and considering how to rebuild shattered landscapes and lives. There were aftershocks, but nothing remotely as jarring as the initial event. As it turned out, people had felt the shaking throughout most of California and beyond: from Coos Bay in Oregon to Anaheim, just south of Los Angeles; from well into the Pacific Ocean all the way inland to Winnemucca, in northern Nevada’s arid interior. An area of roughly 400,000 miles had experienced some seismic activity. But San Francisco and its environs absorbed the brunt of the damage. The wounds were going to become far worse; the most severe would be self-inflicted. Blazes were just starting to burn around the city, born of urban life upended: cracked gas lines, scattered cooking fires, or candles and oil lamps toppled during the quake. The fires demonstrated that although the quake had been natural enough, the disaster would be a byproduct of poor planning, negligence, and the politics of catastrophe.

After the quake ended, with the city in chaos, there was no way to communicate across town, much less the nation. Huge chasms had opened in some streets. A herd of longhorn cattle stampeded through town. San Francisco’s fire chief, Dennis Sullivan, lay dying from injuries sustained when a building collapsed around him. The Army’s Brig. Gen. Frederick Funston, stationed at the time in San Francisco, stepped into the leadership gap and assumed command of firefighting efforts in the city. The city’s mayor, Eugene Schmitz, and former mayor, James Phelan, a banker who still dreamed of higher office, took nominal control of civil affairs — though “control” badly exaggerates their grip. With the city burning on the day of the quake, Funston decided to use explosives to create firebreaks intended to stop the blaze from spreading. It was a bad choice. The resulting explosions started more fires, creating a firestorm that ultimately charred five square miles, razed nearly 30,000 buildings and left tens of thousands homeless. San Francisco was destroyed by the people charged with saving it.

The idea that natural disasters aren’t natural isn’t new. Mike Davis, Ted Steinberg and other commentators writing in Hurricane Katrina’s wake all made similar points. And yet the notion of natural disasters persists, in part because it provides a convenient alibi for politicians and developers who might have prevented, or at least minimized, these catastrophes in the first place. The alibi goes like this: Nature is a fickle mistress. When she brings high winds or floods or shakes the earth, what can be done to prevent the ensuing carnage? If a disaster is natural, in other words, people are insulated from blame, the status quo protected. The San Francisco quake exposes the emptiness of such arguments. The temblor might have been unavoidable, but allowing Funston to burn San Francisco down, albeit unintentionally, was just one among many examples of government abdicating authority and contributing to the catastrophe. In the end, it was all part of a pattern in which elite San Franciscans attempted to use disaster to serve their political interests, to seize power or, in some cases, land.

For further evidence of the politicized nature of the disaster, see the notorious shoot-to-kill order issued by Mayor Schmitz during the crisis, and then the treatment of the city’s Chinese community. As panic spread in the streets, Schmitz authorized troops patrolling the ruined city to shoot looters. Absent martial law, did the mayor have the authority to do this? Probably not. But the courts later decided that, with so many of Funston’s troops roaming the city, it was impossible to know that martial law hadn’t been declared. In other words, so great was the mayhem that San Francisco had become lawless. According to Philip Fradkin, whose study of the quake is the current gold standard: “If there was martial law, then that meant there was no civil law; if there was civil law, then there was no martial law. In reality, there was both and neither.” More troubling: how to determine whether survivors were hunting for medicine and food or, in fact, rifling through the city’s ruins for easy pickings? So much of San Francisco had become a crypt that such acts were akin to grave robbing. Nobody could say with any certainty, especially not the triggermen on patrol. The lack of clear direction from Mayor Schmitz gave free rein to cultural stereotypes. Police and soldiers picked off the poor and people of color, while wealthy whites were spared.

The dispossession of San Francisco’s Chinese was an even more appalling case of calamity transfigured into opportunity: for race-baiting and land grabs. First, Funston’s fire brigade burned the city’s vibrant Chinatown to the ground, perhaps destroying the community in order to save it. Then in the coming months, as the city considered its reconstruction options, businessmen, led by Phelan, suggested that what had been Chinatown could be put to more “progressive” purposes. By that these elites meant redevelopment by white landlords and relocation of the bulk of the city’s Chinese population. Phelan hoped his political career would rise from San Francisco’s ashes. And there was no better way to curry favor with voters than to kick the Asian community while it was down. Chinese San Franciscans, many still living in refugee camps ringing the city, were outraged. Fortunately, they had more than just indignation on their side. They owned much of the land in question. And when the Empress Dowager herself intervened with President Teddy Roosevelt, the game was over. San Francisco’s Chinatown ultimately resumed its position as a hub of West Coast Asian culture.

In the end, some members of the city’s Chinese community managed to wrest from the disaster some measure of dignity. In 1882 Congress had passed the noxious Chinese Exclusion Act, bowing to anti-Asian sentiment prevalent on the West Coast. Historians still debate whether the act created a “bachelor culture” among Chinese immigrants, overwhelmingly men who came looking for economic opportunity created by the 1849 Gold Rush, which also birthed San Francisco. The 1906 fires provided a reprieve from the law. With immigration records burned, untold thousands of “paper sons,” “paper daughters,” “paper wives,” sometimes whole “paper families,” claimed legal immigrant status.

Politics again inflected the city’s reconstruction. The city rose again. But it rose too quickly, without adequate planning, and on the cheap. It was a lost opportunity to honor the quake’s victims by making San Francisco safer. In part because of that hasty rebuilding, San Francisco will be destroyed again. If the devastation following Hurricane Katrina was not just predictable but predicted, the disaster looming in San Francisco’s future is even better understood. There is a 62 percent chance of another large quake centered in the Bay Area before 2032. By that time, 10 million people will be living in the region; there were fewer than half a million there in 1906. Somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 people died in the 1906 quake, which was kind enough to arrive at an off hour. There is no simple equation to predict how many will perish next time. And yet San Francisco continues to grow, its residents every day whistling by a graveyard that may soon be theirs. It’s a chilling thought, particularly as the forced calm is another legacy of the 1906 quake, when the city succeeded, for a time, in cleansing the word “earthquake” from accounts of the disaster.

[Author’s Note: I ripped off the vast majority of this post from a review essay that I published approximately eighteen months ago in The Nation.]