Eric Risberg / AP

Napa earthquake damage highlights tourist destination’s working class

Despite Napa’s speedy recovery, the August 2014 quake reminded everyone that workers are behind wine country’s glamour

NAPA, Calif. — Less than six months after the idyllic calm of this Northern California paradise for foodies and wine enthusiasts was shattered by a magnitude 6.0 earthquake, tourists once again fill the streets, and downtown Napa is on the rebound. Despite Napa’s seemingly speedy recovery, the quake has reminded everyone that it is also a working-class city.

The Aug. 24 disaster injured dozens of people, smashed windows, burst water pipes, crumbled chimneys and forced hotels and restaurants to shutter. It caused an estimated $300 million in damage to private and public buildings.

The disruption caused by the temblor affected not just business owners, winery operators and tourists, but also busboys, hotel maids, waiters, cooks, dishwashers and shop clerks who are the backbone of the area’s more than $50 million annual tourism and convention industry. More than 10,000 jobs in Napa Valley are supported by tourism.

Many historic buildings were damaged in the quake, which struck Napa on Aug. 24, 2014.
Tayfun Coskun / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

“This was a working-class town from earlier days,” said Barry Martin, the head of communications for the city.

It’s hard to imagine that steel factories and naval shipyards were once the dominant employers in what has now become a bucolic valley of rolling hills and vineyards. But Kaiser Steel, which once controlled most of the steelmaking on the Pacific Coast, had a plant here, and the West Coast’s first naval base and shipyard was in nearby Vallejo.

“This town grew up on working with their hands,” Martin said.

Everything changed in 1976, when French wine experts stunned the wine world by selecting California wines over many French wines in a blind taste test in Paris.

Ten years later, there were 200 wineries in Napa Valley. Now there are more than 400.

Along with the world-renowned wines came gourmet food, and the region became a culinary center, home of the famous French Laundry restaurant.

“We were the ugly town that people went around,” Martin said. “No one expected this.”

Although Napa has transformed from factory town to tourist mecca, the workforce remains largely working class. And as Napa’s success attracts more hotels and restaurants, strict growth boundaries have limited development and put housing out of reach for many of the people who work in tourism. Many live in nearby Fairfield, Vacaville and Vallejo.

According to Napa Mayor Jill Techel, the city has rentals that are subsidized to offer lower rates for the workforce, and new construction requires a percentage of affordable housing.

The quake displaced 200 residents from their homes in a city of 79,000, But not many used the shelters that sprang up through the valley. Martin said most stayed in tents or RVs or with friends and neighbors.

“Being a service economy, people focused on helping people,” Techel said.

Because some restaurants were forced to close, the ones that stayed open were swamped with the overflow. They quickly hired people displaced from other restaurants. Within a week of the earthquake, 90 percent of downtown businesses were up and running, said Craig Smith, executive director of the Downtown Napa Association. A month later, business was at 95 percent of normal.

Napa Valley Vintners quickly established a $10 million earthquake relief fund.

The U.S. Small Business Administration approved $34.5 million in disaster loans to help 995 Napa and Solano counties’ residents and businesses with quake recovery. The bulk went to Napa: $26 million to help 805 homeowners and renters and $6.2 million to 92 businesses for property damage, said Kevin Wynne, the spokesman for the administration’s western office of disaster assistance.

Napa’s recovery was fast, partly because of the Internet and social media, said Clay Gregory, the president of Visit Napa Valley, the visitors’ bureau.

Compared with the number of visitors in 2013, he said, “we were down 2.3 percent in September,” he said. “Then things turned around. We were up 4.4 percent in October. That’s amazing … We and other organizations were able to get the word out very, very quickly that hotels were opening, things were opening, through social media — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.”

But for many locals, the 3:20 a.m. earthquake was a rude awakening in more ways than one.

Jim Foster, who was hired as the manager of Carpe Diem Wine Bar Restaurant 12 hours before the quake, at its small pop-up incarnation at the Oxbow Public Market.
Haya ElNasser

Jim Foster was hired to manage Carpe Diem Wine Bar Restaurant, a popular eatery famous for its whimsical and eclectic menu (for example, quack ’n’ cheese, macaroni and cheese topped with duck confit). Twelve hours later, the quake struck, toppling the cupola from the three-story structure built in 1889 and smashing it on the restaurant’s outdoor seating area below.

“My timing was impeccable,” said Foster, 44. “The next day, I woke up with no job.”

The restaurant’s 22 employees had to look for other jobs immediately, he said. Luckily, they weren’t too hard to find. “Wineries and restaurants hired our employees whether they needed them or not,” he said.

But, he added, the last hired will be the first let go when employers cut their payroll during slow seasons.

The hope was to reopen in two weeks, but because of the building’s cultural heritage, the process is dragging on. Carpe Diem is slated to be back in the business in the spring.

Foster took some time off and is now back at work for Carpe Diem’s tiny pop-up restaurant at the Oxbow Public Market. The pop-up has a much shorter menu and employs 10 people, including him and the owner. He said the temporary operation was a way to stay in business. “We seized the day, as our name implies,” he said.

Ryan Haggard, 37, a sous-chef at Carpe Diem, wasn’t so lucky. He was out of work for more than a month and collected unemployment. He wanted to be loyal to his employer and waited in hopes that the restaurant would reopen quickly. But it became clear that it would take a few months.

“At that point, it became obvious to myself and my wife that I would have to look elsewhere for employment,” said Haggard, a resident of nearby Yountville. There wasn’t much demand for sous-chefs, and he ended up doing something completely different. He is now in customer service for a local winery.

“As clichéd as it sounds, this may have opened a door for me,” he said. “In the face of uncertainty, it turned into an incredible opportunity for myself.”

This wasn’t the first earthquake to rattle Napa. In 2000 a 5.2 on the same fault shook a few shelves and crumbled some chimneys.

“It was small, and it was thought to be an anomaly,” Martin said. “The only damage were chimneys falling over. A 5.2, while a strong rattle, is nothing like a 6.”

The 2000 quake didn’t trigger any efforts to retrofit buildings. Most of that was done after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which was centered 56 miles south of San Francisco and was a 6.9 magnitude. It killed 63 people, injured 3,757 and displaced more than 12,000.

Because of new state laws, Napa’s historic buildings were to be retrofitted by 2009. But six have yet to be and, statewide, several thousand haven’t been retrofitted, largely because of lax enforcement and a weakened economy.

But even retrofitting can’t prevent damage; it’s meant to reduce damage to protect lives. 

Now the Napa earthquake is prompting more study.

“Ninety percent of earthquake safety legislation is in the aftermath of earthquakes,” said Laurie Johnson, an urban planning consultant who is working with the Seismic Safety Commission to learn policy lessons from the latest quake.

“This was kind of a surprise fault,” said Johnson, author of “Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery: Next Generation” for the American Planning Association. “The segment of the fault that ruptured was not considered an active fault. It wasn’t active by state definition. Do the definitions need to be changed?”

While experts study the quake, Napa officials say they’re reviewing their response. The city had no system in place to dole out the $10 million that the vintners’ group gave to help in the recovery. After giving $1 million immediately to social services agencies, the city’s community foundation wasn’t sure if it should distribute the money before knowing if the Federal Emergency Management Agency would approve loan applications.

“We had no system in place,” Martin said. “FEMA took 60 days. We couldn’t spend it until FEMA money came through. In the long run, it’s going to be good. There are lessons learned.”

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter