August 24, 2015 . Derek Moore
“I thought we had been bombed. Or that it was an airplane crash,” Lang said.
When it was over, a stunned citizenry from Vallejo to Napa and Sonoma Valley was thrust into an altered reality. Nearly 70,000 people were without power. Sirens wailed and freeways jammed with vehicles, as people hurried to check on loved ones.
By daybreak, emergency rooms at hospitals were filled with the injured. Napa County bore the brunt of the impact, with hundreds of homes and buildings heavily damaged, many beyond repair. In downtown Napa, a number of historic structures appeared on the verge of collapse.
“I looked at my phone, and it was Wolf Blitzer calling. It was so surreal,” said Napa Mayor Jill Techel, who rushed home from Monterey that morning to find her city in a state of disarray.The eventual tally of loss showed the quake factored in the death of one person, injured about 200 others and caused about $360 million in property damage throughout the region. Sixty percent of Napa County wineries sustained some degree of damage, and up to 25 percent of wineries suffered moderate to severe damage exceeding $50,000 per winery, ranging upward to $8 million in the most devastating incidents.
One early analysis pegged earthquake-related losses to Napa County’s wine industry between $70 million and $100 million. At the time, the bank executive who conducted that survey called it a “very conservative estimate.”
A year later, the fallout from the South Napa earthquake continues to be felt in the Wine Country in sharply uneven ways that are not always obvious.
Retrofit and repair work continues, most visibly in downtown Napa, where scaffolding surrounds several buildings. An untold number of residents still seek financial assistance with their needs, while behind the scenes, officials at all levels of government tussle over payment for earthquake-related work performed or scheduled.
Scientists also continue to map and study the West Napa Fault, the north-south rift that runs roughly 35 miles from St. Helena to American Canyon and which was not considered a major threat prior to the quake.
Most residents have moved on with their lives. And the region’s economy, with its focus on wine and tourism, continues to hum. But it doesn’t take much to expose a lingering undercurrent of anxiety stemming from last year’s temblor — an aftershock, the loud rumble of a motorcycle passing by, the daily construction work on damaged homes and buildings.
Lang said she and Fittipoldi, 61, both underwent treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder to help them cope with anxiety they experienced after the earthquake. They most certainly are not alone.
“We were having vivid memories of the fires and the aftermath,” Lang said.
The morning of Aug. 24, they could do nothing but watch as firefighters fought a valiant but ultimately futile battle to save their home from the inferno. The couple had barely enough time to get out of the structure before it went up in flames. Their kitten, Coco, likely perished in the blaze.
Three other homes at the Napa Valley Mobile Home Park in north Napa were destroyed by fire, and roughly 75 percent of the remaining 257 structures were damaged.
In the city of Napa alone, more than 2,000 structures were slapped with red or yellow tags prohibiting or restricting access. President Barack Obama designated the earthquake a disaster on Sept. 11.
A year later, the hands on a grandfather clock inside a Brown Street building in downtown Napa that was heavily damaged are frozen at 3:20, marking the time when the temblor struck. Across the street, Napa County’s historic courthouse, with its eastern-facing façade held up by safety beams, is among the more visible reminders of the quake’s lingering repercussions. Ringed by a chain-link fence, it remains unoccupied and unused, deemed too dangerous by building officials to enter. The county awaits a determination by federal officials before it can move forward with repairs.
In Napa, 62 properties remain red-tagged, meaning they are too dangerous to access. Another 900 to 1,000 properties have yellow tags. Most are residential properties with minor chimney, foundation or interior damage. Many of the structures are in the city’s historic downtown district.
City officials worry about blight the longer it takes to repair or demolish damaged homes and businesses. But they also have been mindful of pushing people too hard.
“We’re trying to be patient,” said Ken MacNab, the city’s planning manager. “We haven’t made any concerted effort to force the issue.”
The U.S. Post Office announced recently that it is abandoning the downtown post office and will instead seek to sell the iconic Second Street building. Several downtown businesses damaged in the quake closed permanently, including a Safeway supermarket and McCullough’s department store, both community mainstays. Other businesses were forced to relocate.
People are still waiting to access about 230 storage units at a Walnut Street facility damaged by the quake, according to Techel. She said the city’s public works director told her recovery efforts are always “10 times harder” than the immediate response to disasters.
About $53 million in local, state and federal aid has been made available to victims of the quake.
Approximately 7,300 people in Napa and Solano counties have registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency seeking financial assistance with earthquake recovery. The agency has dispersed about $11 million for such things as rental assistance, home repairs and other needs.
FEMA also has earmarked about $16.5 million to help government agencies and private nonprofit organizations with repairs or replacements to public infrastructure.
Local officials, however, say they are hoping to recoup millions more.
The city of Napa has spent or approved $7.39 million toward earthquake-related work and services. To date, FEMA has reimbursed the city $1.78 million, or roughly 24 percent of the total.
“It’s a lot of money,” City Manager Mike Parness said. “Thank God we had reserves. We didn’t have to lay off people or cut services.”
The Napa Valley Unified School District is weighing the futures of three campuses — Napa Junction Elementary School in American Canyon, and Napa’s Snow Elementary School and Stonebridge Charter School — that sit atop the West Napa Fault. Some or all of the buildings may have to be relocated, at an estimated cost of $80 million.
Perhaps the iconic image of the quake damage in Wine Country was the condition of the historic Eshcol Winery building at the Trefethen Family Vineyards on the northern outskirts of Napa. The grand wooden building, built in 1886 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was used as Trefethen’s visitor center and tasting room.
A year after the quake, the structure still leans at a precarious angle, its bones buckled in a way that is obvious to any passer-by.
The winery has signed off on a plan to retrofit and reinforce the building while maintaining the structure’s historical character, said Jon Ruel, the winery’s CEO. He said the winery explored obtaining a loan from the government to help pay for the work but, in the end, went with a bank loan for what Ruel called a “substantial amount” of money.
The winery was able to recoup from the earthquake in time to complete the 2014 harvest.
“A year later, we’re already into the next harvest. The cycle of the vine has, of course, continued,” he said.
Across Napa Valley, ongoing recovery efforts don’t appear to have pulled the throttle back on the region’s economy, which continues to hum.
While visitation to the marquee tourist region was down immediately following the earthquake, hotel revenue was up by nearly 15 percent three months later in December over the same month in 2013. The valley welcomed a record 3.3 million visitors in 2014 — an increase of 12 percent from 2012, the previous year for which data was compiled by Visit Napa Valley.
“We worked very hard to get the word out, really to the world, that Napa Valley was still open for business,” said Stan Boyd, board chairman for Visit Napa Valley and the owner of Boyd Family Vineyards. “I think that garnered some goodwill among people wanting to support one of their favorite destinations.”
Two higher-end hotels in downtown Napa — the Andaz and Westin — were temporarily closed as a result of earthquake damage. But other hotels took in displaced travelers. Boyd, who also owns a Holiday Inn Express in American Canyon, said occupancy at that facility was boosted after the quake, mainly as a result of PG&E crews staying there overnight while working on repairs in the region.
The U.S. Small Business Administration approved 1,092 disaster loans totaling more than $39.9 million for businesses and residents in Napa and Solano counties. The bulk — 968 loans totaling more than $30.4 million — went to individuals.
A local disaster relief fund administered by the Napa Valley Community Foundation has dispersed about $6.4 million, most of it in the form of cash grants to individuals, businesses and nonprofits. The fund was started with a $10 million donation made by Napa Valley Vintners.
The community foundation is deciding how to spend the remaining $4.5 million. Most of it will go to people who have “persistent, unmet needs,” said Terence Mulligan, the foundation’s president.
“I think most people are OK, but I’m certain there are people out there — whether it’s a couple dozen or a couple hundred — who have losses that make their homes unsafe. We want to pay attention to that,” Mulligan said.
Garret Murphy, owner of the Vintner’s Collective on Main Street in downtown Napa, said he gave up seeking financial aid for repairs to the business out of frustration with the process. Instead, he obtained a bank loan for the work.
“It was a nightmare, but at the same time, you don’t think about it,” he said of the earthquake and the aftermath confronting business challenges. “You put your head down, your apron on and go to work.”
He said his business revenue plunged by about 50 percent the first six months after the earthquake. The tasting room is located inside the Pfeiffer Building, which is Napa’s oldest commercial building. The two-story structure had been retrofitted prior to the August earthquake, but still suffered major damage to its stone façade. The outside of the building is still obscured by scaffolding.
Murphy was allowed to reopen the tasting room five months after the quake. He said revenue is almost back to where it was prior to the shaker.
“I’m really looking forward to a new year and putting this all behind me,” he said. “It’s going to be awesome.”
Lang, the mobile home resident, described the battle she and Fittipoldi waged to get his insurance to cover the cost of a unit to replace the one that burned. His policy covered damages from fires but not earthquakes.
As negotiations dragged on, the couple lived in a hotel room for two months before renting another mobile home at the Napa park. Finally, the insurance company relented, agreeing to fund the purchase of a new double-wide. However, the couple is still seeking compensation for the loss of the home’s contents, new landscaping and for personal expenses they put on credit cards.
The home is situated in the same space as the old one.
The proximity to the disaster explains one reason why the couple struggle to put the event behind them. It also didn’t help that their new home was the subject of a recall for a faulty gas line.
But the pair, who are engaged to be married, are optimistic about their future, which they hope does not include another earthquake.
“Everything is brand new. It’s like a fresh start,” Lang said. “But that doom is always there.”