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The earthquake is the most arresting of natural disasters. Despite our best efforts, it can't be tracked or predicted like a storm, and it has a dark primordial power all its own, as it rises from the molten nether world and shakes the very foundations of our existence.

We do the best we can. We assign it a number on the Richter scale, we repair the damage, we assess what worked and what didn't in the implementation of our disaster plan, and we try to figure out how we can do better the next time.But the aftershocks of an earthquake, like other major catastrophes, reach farther and deeper than this. Disasters always have a significant cultural dimension that extends beyond the measure of human casualties, physical damages and cost estimates. In fact, it is their cultural context that determines how societies understand and define them as catastrophic. Even the most powerful earthquake would attract relatively little notice unless it threatened something that we hold valuable, whether a building, a human life, the social order or the World Series.

But the more significant point here is that individuals and groups want to frame and interpret events on recognizable and acceptable terms they feel they already understand, and catastrophes are precisely those things that threaten to break the frame.

Our first effort in the wake of disasters is to domesticate them and somehow make them familiar and thus less threatening, as when we assign names to hurricanes. The dominant reaction after a major shock is the attempt to maintain the status quo, to make sure that our family is all right and to reaffirm the system as it is already constituted.

Tales of drunkenness, looting and other forms of venality inevitably emerge, but what is always stressed are the acts of selflessness and the reassertion of community. "Neighbors saw a need and acted," read a front-page headline in Thursday's Chicago Tribune, followed later by, "Earth sends a message, and its people respond." Commentators earnestly express pieties about how all this reminds us what's really important ("Series rightfully takes back seat to reality," topped the sports page, while a usually cynical columnist asked, "Does it really matter if Jose Canseco gets another hit?"), or other similar sentiments that try to put things in the best light, even predicting that this setback will prove to be a blessing in disguise.

At at the same time, however, as the initial exhilaration and shock subside, disasters become a locus for free-floating anxieties that often have little to do with the specific situation at hand. There are always street-corner Jeremiahs ready to remind us of Sodom and Gomorrah, but many of us don't need any prompting to load our guilts and fears and hopes onto terrible events. Much of the country, both jealous and suspicious of California culture, sometimes seems readier than it was 83 years ago to see something like an earthquake (or the outbreak of AIDS) as a visitation that is evidence of divine justice. We want an explanation for what happened that we can connect to a meaningful transcendent vision of the nature of experience that animates our lives.

This was certainly the case in San Francisco in 1906. By that time, the city was no longer the freewheeling boom town created almost overnight a half-century earlier by the Gold Rush. It was still the leading urban center of the Far West, but it faced commercial competition from Los Angeles and other fast-rising coastal towns, as well as many of the same dilemmas confronting other older American cities, including an inefficient infrastructure and a corrupt political machine. The earthquake prompted observers who wanted to assure themselves of the city's unique identity and blessed status to seek refuge in the mythology of its frontier past while girding themselves for the uncertainties of the future.

Commentators tirelessly declared that the earthquake had the beneficial effect of reviving democracy and purpose in a community that had become stratified and soft. In so doing, they argued that the levelling of the mansions of the rich and the primitive conditions of refugees camping in Golden Gate Park showed that the dauntless spirit of the Forty-Niners - or the Argonauts, as they were commonly called in an obvious act of mythologizing - was alive and well. Even unsubstantiated stories of looters being shot were presented in the context of familiar social patterns, in the tradition of the Vigilance Committees of the 1850s, when self-appointed keepers of the peace stepped into a vacuum of authority to deal out whippings and hangings to alleged wrongdoers.

At the same time many argued that the earthquake was a sign that San Franciscans should now let go of their cherished past and rebuild as a modern city oriented to the 20th century. Civic leaders and entrepreneurs deeply concerned about the economic well-being of the city after the devastation made this point repeatedly in public addresses, in the pages of publications and in journals and pamphlets they issued themselves.

The fire was a great new opportunity for the San Francisco spirit. Local boosters linked the reconstruction of the city to the contemporary ideology of American expansionism that lay behind the construction of the Panama Canal.

It is a little too early to tell precisely what this latest earthquake will reveal, but some familiar patterns are already starting to prevail. The first news was fragmentary and descriptive, and newspapers all had that little box that tells where this one stands in the top ten earthquakes or natural disasters to hit the United States or the world during the 20th century or through all recorded time. There already are the specific tales of heroism and hardship ("Red Cross, others jump into action," "For survivors, conveniences vanish") and of the ironies and quirks of fate ("Disaster left many paradoxes," "Second phase of repairs came too late for the double-decker freeway").

The term disaster has lost its edge when we commonly say that the subways or the schools are a disaster, or even the local ball team or the latest dinner party. We may deal with catastrophe better than we once did not because we are more able to prevent and contain it physically, but because as a culture we have fully integrated it into our conception of modern experience.