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40 Historically Speaking November/December 2005 An Interview with Philip L. Fradkin on Natural Disasters and the Great Quake of 1906 Conducted by Randall J. Stephens Environmental historian Philip L. Fradkin has authored ten books on the American West, California, andAlaska. Two ofhis books have been nominatedfor Pulitzer Prizes. A distinguished journalist as well, Fradkin served as a Vietnam correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, was that newspaper 's first environmental writer, and in 1965 shared a Pulitzer Prize with the Times/or coverage ofthe Watts riots. His latest work, The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself (University ofCalifornia Press, 2005), narrates the devastation the 1906 quake brought to California. Deathtoll figures have long been disputed, ranging anywhere between 400 and 3500. Known as the "Paris of the West, " San Francisco became a tent city overnight as 200,000 civilians lost their homes. Fradkin provocatively focuses on how human actions added to the misery and chaos that enveloped San Francisco. Following the quake andfirestorms, authorities suspended civil liberties, ordered the shooting of suspicious individuals, and mismanaged the crisis at almost every turn. After last year s tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the recent earthquake in Pakistan, and thefierce hurricanes in the UnitedStates, Fradkin 's account seems all the more relevant. Randall Stephens interviewed Fradkin in October 2005. Randall J. Stephens: In your many books you have dealt with the horrors of manmade and natural catastrophes: radioactive fallout in Nevada, improvident use of water resources in the West, tidal waves in Alaska, and, most recently, the mammoth earthquake and firestorms that rocked San Francisco in 1906. In The Great Earthquakeand Firestorms of 1906 you write of your own experience with large-scale disasters . Could you speak briefly to these personal experiences? And how have they influenced your writing? the summer of 1965, and I have lost my home to fire in northern California. I live adjacent to the San Andreas Fault. I write about what is around me, and in California that means disasters . Philip L. Fradkin: It is very difficult to capture the attention of readers with normal events. I tried that in Sagebrush Country: Land and the American West, which is a portrait of a mountain range in Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado that is plain and ordinary and unspectacular but is a good example of all the varied land uses in the West. The book sold poorly not only because ofthe ordinariness ofthe subject but also because it was positive and offered solutions. I need to attempt to make a living from writing, something that has yet to happen . So I have sold out to the spectacular. I have also experienced such disasters first hand, both as a newspaper reporter in California and then as a resident. I was the first reporter into south central Los Angeles in Panorama view near Turk and Market St., San Francisco, 1906. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [reproduction number, LC-DIG-ppmsca-07589]. Stephens: How does your perspective as an environmental journalist and historian affect your work? Fradkin: I ceased to be a journalist twentyfive years ago when I left Audubon magazine. But during the years when I worked for small newspapers in California and then the Los Angeles Times and finally Audubon I learned how to research the here and now. That means going out and looking at what happened and talking to people. I always wanted to go deeper into the past and did so to the extent possible when writing for journals. As I began researching A River No More: the Colorado River and the West, my first real book, I not only used myjournalistic skills but also developed the skills needed to dig deep in countless archives and libraries across the country. Putting this together gave me an appreciation for making history relevant, for connecting the past to the present. Fifteen years ago I came across the following quotation from Emerson's essay Nature: "All the facts of natural history taken by themselves, have no value; but are barren like a single sex. But marry it to human history, and it is full of life." Eureka! How can you separate the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6438
Print ISSN
1941-4188
Pages
pp. 40-43
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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