The Santa Barbara shake that shaped a city

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Ninety years ago (a Monday, just like today), Santa Barbara shook. At 6:44am in 1925, a 6.8 earthquake centered in the Santa Barbara Channel rocked the city, killing 13 people and all but leveling most of the downtown area. Historic parts of the city sustained serious damage, including buildings like the courthouse, churches and schools.

The destruction was severe, but, in a time when communication and national response was much slower, Santa Barbara residents were resilient. The city took the disaster as an opportunity to reshape the design and architecture of Santa Barbara. Now, it’s hard to picture what Santa Barbara would look like if not for that day. Writer and Santa Barbara historian Neal Graffy is currently working on a book called “The Great Santa Barbara Earthquake – The Disaster That Built a City.” He spoke with KCRW’s Larry Perel.

An excerpt from Graffy’s upcoming book:

By 8:00 the Red Cross had their first station set up and ready at de la Guerra Plaza. A second station was on the lawn of the library along Anapamu street and a third at Vera Cruz Park. Coffee, donuts, and water were distributed. Nestled between City Hall and the Daily News building, de la Guerra Plaza became the command center. Other tents housed City Manager Herbert Nunn, the chief of police, the American Legion and the Chamber of Commerce and eventually banks, military personnel and even the Automobile Club of Southern California.

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Nestled between City Hall and the Daily News building, de la Guerra Plaza became the command center. Photo: Neal Graffy collection
Red Cross relief workers set up outdoors in Santa Barbara. Photo: LA Times
A well-armed citizen on patrol at State just above Cabrillo. Within hours of the quake, Santa Barbara had a home guard of close to 400 people. Photo: Neal Graffy collection

Unlike San Francisco (1906) and Yokohama, Japan (1923) where fire did more damage than the quake, Santa Barbara was saved from that fate by the quick thinking and bravery of two men. At the Southern California Edison powerhouse on Castillo (in what is now Pershing Park) William Engle, the night operator, dashed through the collapsing building to get to the switches to cut off all power to the city. A similar scene was played out at the south-west corner of Montecito and Quarantina streets, home of the Southern Counties Gas Co. Henry Ketz, the night engineer, somehow managed to find his way through the plant to turn off the main emergency valve. Both were proclaimed heroes and given recognition and rewards.

Actually there was a third hero who was over-looked in all the excitement. William Pfleging, was an engineer at the gas plant who coincidentally lived a few doors below Ketz at 512 Brinkerhoff. He was in the process of making gas when the quake hit. He quickly vented the gas, filled the pipes with cold air, shut off the pilot and left the building. Outside in the yard, the water tanks were swaying so violently they were throwing water 100 feet. Pfleging reached the valves that shut off the gas to the city and closed them.

An earthquake without a fire was a blessing not only to the town, but to engineers and seismologists. For the first time they were able to study the full effect of a strong earthquake on the many types of building materials, styles and construction.

The Southern California Edison powerhouse, where night operator William Engle dashed through the collapsing building to get to the switches to cut off all power to the city. Photo: Neal Graffy collection
Through the newly created Architectural Advisory Committee, suggested facades for State Street stores were available for free to property owners. Photo: Neal Graffy collection
Although civilization was quickly returning to the stricken city, most residents continued to “camp out” in their backyards, city parks and vacant lots. Photo: Neal Graffy collection

“Be ready,” says Graffy. Here are some tools to do so:

  • Great ShakeOut Earthquake Drills are an annual opportunity for people in homes, schools, and organizations to practice what to do during earthquakes, and to improve preparedness.
  • California Earthquake Authority (CEA) offers information on earthquake insurance.
  • Santa Barbara County VOAD (voluntary organizations active in disaster) addresses disasters by coordinating with nonprofits, community-based organizations, government agencies, and for-profit companies.