No Environmental Refugees in Napa After the Quake

No Environmental Refugees in Napa After the Quake

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The jolting woke us and we jumped into action mode. “Earthquake!” We bolted through the library to our daughter’s door. The shaking stopped. It was a sleepover night and our daughter’s friend was already on her extended family’s texting tree, checking to see if all were well.

“There might be aftershocks ,” I said.

Even as I pointed to the exit route, however, I saw in the girls’ eyes a calm that told me they did not have – or in our daughter’s case, did not remember -- the experience of how devastating an earthquake can be.

For many years we lived in Guatemala where neighbors still talked about the big one of 1976, when 23,000 died. In the decade of the 1990s, when we moved to Antigua, a town outside the capital surrounded by volcanoes, even small earthquakes claimed lives elsewhere in the country, not because of high Richter scale numbers, but because houses were so poorly made, or urban planning so corrupt, or deforestation so rampant that families died in their sleep when roofs fell in or homes slid down overpopulated ravines. Our town was a robust enclave in a poor country, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but earthquakes happened often enough with tragic consequences elsewhere so that we made sure we practiced our drills even when the ground hadn’t shaken for months.

On Sunday here in San Francisco, it was in the minutes after we jumped from our bed, however, that I felt the gap between earthquake experiences in countries far apart in distance, but also in wealth. There would be no severely displaced, no massive numbers of environmental refugees in Wine Country. Local radio spurted call-ins from the affected around Napa, the epicenter.

“The house was such a mess we had to drive over to our other house,” reported a woman.
A man said he was calling from his car: “There’s no power so we’re stuck here in the driveway because the gates won’t open.”

Not everyone was lucky. There were injuries. Our daughter’s friend showed us a picture of her aunt’s trashed grocery store, which implied loss of stock, and structural damage.

And there was much talk of 1989, the last big one in the Bay Area. My husband had been hosting half a dozen Americans in our Antigua living room that day, to watch the Giants battle the Oakland A’s in the World Series. “Something’s happening at Candlestick,” I heard him say. It would be the first earthquake broadcast live on national television. In the next room static interrupted a call I was making. “The Golden Gate Bridge has come down,” said an operator. It hadn’t, but a section of the Bay Bridge fell, causing the most of some 60 deaths.

The day after the quake here, a local paper ran a front-page photo of dislodged wine barrels with the headline: Wake Up Call. We’re reminded to freshen up our emergency packs, home and car, and to pressure authorities to get that early warning system in place. There were pictures of fissures in vineyards, venerable old buildings damaged, a flooded boutique. States of emergency were declared on local and state levels, assuring some degree of assistance, and insurance to the afflicted.

Before this particular earthquake fades into memory with the rush of new events, I want to give thanks. I feel gratitude that I live in the land of building codes and retrofit regulations, and of speedy emergency relief, even as I wait, like my San Francisco neighbors, for the Really Big One, hoping preparation and luck give us continued advantage over the unquiet earth.


Mary Jo McConahay is an independent journalist and author of Ricochet, Two women war reporters and a friendship under fire (Shebooks)