On August 24, 2014, in the early morning darkness, the South Napa Earthquake roared through my neighborhood, buckling streets, bouncing cars, cracking homes and hurling residents out of sleep. Thrown this way and that, deafened by crashing furniture and breaking glass, it took me a couple seconds to understand the nightmare was real. The earth, rupturing below us, sent sparks into the night. Groaning and swaying, the house was a living thing under attack. I was certain it would not withstand the beating, and I felt sorry for it: it had been a good house. When the violence finally ended, I was on my feet and panting, and my partner was holding me, telling me to calm down. I couldn’t. I had not counted on being alive.
My sensible spouse already had a flashlight in her hand and was sweeping the beam over the chaos of the room. “Get some shoes on,” she said. I stepped over the lamp and all the other objects scattered across the floor—both dressers had landed on the bed—and fished a sturdy pair of loafers from the closet. Room by room, we went through the house, shining our flashlights on the bewildering wreckage. With every turn our work mounted, and what frightened us more was the damage we could not yet see. The garage—actually a wood shop—was a disaster of comic proportions. How had those massive machines keeled over? Where would we even begin?
My partner wanted to document the event, and so we waited for daylight to take pictures. Numbed by what we had seen so far, we ventured outside to check on the neighbors. Most were in their bathrobes, wide-eyed and confused. One was dazed by a falling picture; another had cut her leg on the glass from a closet door. An elderly woman, scared beyond speech, would not come out of her house; many others would not go back inside. In the dawn light I saw that the trees in our neighborhood were unharmed, and our yards, pleasing and tidy, were momentary solace.
We started with the most vital part, the kitchen, then moved through the rest of our home like a triage team, swiftly discarding what couldn’t be saved, setting aside the things we held hope for. More than a few of these things gave us pause as we tried to absorb losing them. “It’s just stuff,” people chorus, by way of consolation, and this is true enough. But it is the stuff of our lives, the treasures, chosen or given, that bring us pleasure, and to which we’ve assigned value and meaning. These things matter and it is right to mourn them.
We did not eat much that day. We did not bathe, or drink enough water, or look in a mirror. We did not do much thinking, we just kept going. There were moments we snapped at each other and moments we couldn’t be kind enough. Frayed nerves, big hearts. At some point in the afternoon we left our house and drove around town to see how others had fared. Damage varied but not by much. Like us, many had lost their chimneys, and lawn after lawn was littered with the rubble. Though we could not see them from the street, swimming pools were reported to have caused spectacular destruction, swamping yards and patios, even living rooms. Water in fact was the biggest problem, gushing from mains all over the city, and in this drought-ravaged summer. We did not venture downtown—we’d all been advised not to—nor did we linger over anything we saw. Our home was injured and we wanted to be with it. And we were worried about the cats—we had not seen them all day. Happily, they reappeared that evening, bringing us relief and a measure of normalcy.
My partner and I have talked about the earthquake several times, trying to comprehend what happened to us. As with most accidents, no one remembers the same stream of details, and it is not likely we will ever have a clear picture of those 15 seconds. Perhaps because of this, the terror still ricochets through me whenever I recall the event. I wonder if I will always be this way.
Disaster is relative, and the South Napa Earthquake is a meh compared to the colossal catastrophes Mother Nature lets loose in her ongoing show of who’s boss. In Napa we are thankful for whatever we were spared. Those who lost their homes are grateful to be alive; those with lesser losses are relieved they don’t have to move.
Our home is largely back together, but the small repairs will take months. There is so much work to be done in this town and so few who are capable of doing it. We don’t need dot-commers, we need skilled labor: carpenters, masons, plumbers, electricians, roofers, sheet-rockers. Those without skills can offer their strength: there are countless things to simply pick up.
We persist. Though our efforts may not be enough, we rebuild anyway, shoring up the weak points, learning as we go. We are not safe; we are not meant to be. Life is state of peril and wonder. Allowing this gives us rein, an open road for the journey.
We lost power when the earthquake hit, and so my plants were not irrigated. Watering shrubs that evening, I became aware of a movement in the branches. Looking closer, I saw it was a spider racing down a strand of a web my hose nozzle had just ruined. I studied the dangling shreds of his home, dismayed by the damage I’d done, and then my gaze moved to the spider, who was waiting me out in the curl of a leaf. I moved on, gave him some space to work in.