Follow The Red Brick Circles

San Francisco is one of my favourite cities I have never been to. The picture above is one from a Google street view of a busy intersection in the heart of the city. There is something about the mysterious brick circles, like the one you see above, all around in San Francisco. They have puzzled tourists and residents as well. The circles are almost always in the middle of streets and near intersections.

At 5.12 am on April 12, 1906, San Francisco was struck by a 7.9 magnitude earthquake. ‘Violent shocks punctuated the strong shaking which lasted some 45 to 60 seconds..’ The immediate damage was immense, destroying buildings and hundreds of lives were lost. But the danger was only beginning. A series of fires broke out throughout the city, burning for days. More than three-quarters of the city was destroyed, and as many as 3,000 people died in the earthquake and its aftermath.

Typically, even more than a century ago, the city fire department was equipped to put out fires quickly. The firefighters would get to the fires in horse drawn carriages. Use the municipal fire hydrants connected by water mains to attack the fires without having to bring water along with their ladders and hoses. But the 1906 earthquake destroyed water and sewage lines and the roads quickly filled with rubble making it almost impassable for fire carriages and their small portable tanks of water.

The firefighters reached the blaze but they didn’t have the water needed to put out the fires. 

About 100 years before this earthquake, in the 1800’s, many fires had erupted in the city. So the city leaders had built 16 underground cisterns around San Francisco to store water for firefighting in the event of an emergency. Later, San Francisco also started building the modern piping and water supply system. Confident that the new water delivery system was efficient and enough, they neglected the cisterns and stopped maintaining them. When the 1906 earthquake hit, the modern supply system they relied on was destroyed. The backup cisterns did not have any water.

The costly lesson was learnt. So in 1908, the city began repairing the existing cisterns and built more than a 100 new ones. They’re basically massive tanks of water, separate from the municipal water supply, waiting in case the regular water systems fail.

Most of these cisterns are below street-level, and before GPS, firefighters needed to know where they were during an emergency. The red brick circles solved that problem and helped them to instantly identify the cistern with the tank full of life saving water when a fire breaks out.

The brick circles which seem like little art projects on the top are San Francisco’s ultimate life saving backup when the main system collapses.

What level of thought has gone in about our backups in life that need to get into action when our main system collapses? How often have we got around to maintain them in top shape to help it serve our needs when it matters the most?

Story Notes

More pictures on the Brick Cicles here

On the devastating 1906 earthquake, here

I first chanced upon the story of Brick Cicles in the Dan Lewis ‘Now I Know’ Newsletter about eight months back. The story stayed with me. What happened to a city can happen to any of us. I’ve made an effort to build up some fresh backups and relook at the ones I have, ever since.

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