Recollections on the quake, a year after the shaking

This little house suffered extensive damage in the quake, and remains damaged and abandoned a year later.

This little house suffered extensive damage in the quake, and remains damaged and abandoned a year later.

It’s been a little more than a year since the Aug. 24 earthquake in Napa. Several local and regional news outlets covered the anniversary with articles that described the repair of damaged buildings downtown and how the wine industry largely shrugged off the damage as a whole.

That’s definitely the big story; Napa has moved on in the year since the earthquake. But I still come upon reminders of the quake that trigger feelings in me that are almost similar to the cracks in the pavement, tilted houses or missing chimneys.

The physical wounds of the earthquake are healed and are being removed, but the emotional or mental are not. I’m not being sentimental, these “emotional wounds” in no way have a profound depth of feeling, but they are still scars in my consciousness. Perhaps scars is too strong of a word, but “impressions” is far too weak to express how much of an impact the event had on our life, even if Christine and I had it fairly easy.

I was in a deep sleep when the earthquake struck just after 3 a.m. There had been a much smaller earthquake about a week earlier so I had recently been reacquainted with the sensation of an earthquake and expected it to come to an end quickly. The shaking, however, didn’t end and only grew more and more violent. I vaguely remember Christine grabbing on to me, but my memory of the actual earthquake is one of just feeling completely powerless. The true and literal powerlessness of being subjected to a force on which you have no control. I imagine it would be similar to falling off a cliff and the few seconds of being aware of plummeting to a fast approaching ground. It was terrifying.

All of the plants, picture frames and some furniture in our room had been knocked askew or toppled completely. The potting soil from the plants had been spilled across the white carpet in our room. I was starring at that dirt, which was illuminated by my flashlight and had been ground into the carpet and thinking how much of a nuisance it would be to clean up, when I heard Christine from our kitchen exclaim: “Oh my God”

A crack from the earthquake runs from the sidewalk up in to the stone porch of the Napa Grapegrowers' office building.

A crack from the earthquake runs from the sidewalk up in to the stone porch of the Napa Grapegrowers’ office building.

As I walked over to that part of the house I heard her repeating “Oh my God,” at increasing levels of anxiety and dismay that sounded like an approaching panic. When I stepped into our kitchen and saw the chaos I understood why. I told her to stop, breathe and compose herself. We were physically unharmed, but overwhelmed by the mess at that moment.

I could feel shards of glass beneath my feet, and did get a small cut in the cleanup. Every cabinet had been flung open and the contents strewn on the floor or on the countertops. Wherever we pointed the beams of our flashlights shattered glass glinted back at us, and our dog’s eyes shined at us from beneath the kitchen table where he lay cowering. I wonder still how his small animal brain processed the noise and violence of that morning. He did the smart thing though, got beneath the table and stayed there.

I thought to myself if it’s this bad here in Napa the earthquake could have been localized or it may have been an even bigger earthquake centered elsewhere in the Bay Area. For all I knew, standing there in my wrecked kitchen in the dark hours before dawn, San Francisco could be destroyed.

As Christine began to sweep up broken glass, I dug up our small battery powered radio in our garage. I spun the little tuner wheel on the radio, desperate to get a sense of how big the quake was, because I knew if it had been the “Big One” I’d have to figure out how we’d survive for three to five days as the regional authorities coped with a disaster of Katrina proportions. Thankfully I did find a station just in time to hear a DJ report a magnitude 6.0 earthquake in Napa. The news gave me a strong sense of relief as I knew damage from the quake would be localized to just our area. (I realized later I could have found the answer by checking my phone, but I was a bit rattled by the quake and I am a child of the ‘80s.)

We then spent about two to three hours cleaning up the glass setting furniture back in place and taking stock of what had been damaged all in the dark with only our flashlights because the power was out. Thankfully the “museum glue” I had used to secure the crystal decanters from my father’s collection onto shelves did an excellent job. Some of these decanters are exquisite antiques from the 18th and 19th century and they made it through the quake just fine. One actually rode a heavy bookcase that ripped out its anchor bolts from the wall as it “walked” about two feet during the shaking. The decanter, affixed to the top, stayed secure and the bolts prevented the bookcase from topping.

After getting the broken glass up off the floor, I texted my family to let them know we were OK and texted my friends in American Canyon because I’d learned by then that the epicenter had been near there. Despite being so close to the center, American Canyon fared quite well. Because of different soils and geo-dynamics the waves of seismic energy traveled up through Napa Valley on the west side of the river. That’s why the warehouses in American Canyon had little to no damage while the Hess Collection winery far up in the west hills of Napa suffered millions of dollars in damage.

Christine and I fell into our guest bed, we had decided to confront the mess in our bedroom in daylight, and had a fretful hour of sleep until the sun rose.

The news helicopters arrived just after sunrise and the noise from the rotors drove us from bed. I stepped out onto our front porch and despite the helicopters found it to be an oddly quiet morning. The power was still out and there was little traffic noise. Napa was just waking up and still in shock. A mobile home park was on fire not too far away and an acrid, burnt-plastic smell hung in the air. A few of my neighbors were chatting in the street, it was a surreal scene, an unsettling scene.

In the light of day I did another full check of the house and was happy to again find no major, structural damage. I didn’t smell any gas so I kept our gas on, and not knowing when power or water would return I filled up a five-gallon bucket from my homebrew kit to at least have some water for miscellaneous uses and for the dog to drink. We were lucky because our power returned fairly early in the morning at around 7:45 a.m. Christine and I then were able to see some of the devastation downtown. We thought about riding our bikes there to gawp at the collapsed walls and other damage, but it seemed a bit ghoulish to us.

Even a year later, when I recount this experience with other people who live in Napa they have quite similar experiences that they share with an equal amount of intensity. I’ve had such encounters with winemakers, winery executives and other friends in Napa. Discussing the earthquake is an intense, shared experience that left an indelible mark on almost everyone who lived in the city.

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