Brad Farmerie expected the worst when he pulled up to The Thomas Restaurant in downtown Napa following last Sunday’s powerful earthquake.
“It’s bad,” read the text message Farmerie received from one of his employees, as the executive chef was busy assessing damage to his own home.
Farmerie found the three-story restaurant he leads at 813 Main St. in a shambles. Dozens of shattered wine and liquor bottles littered the floor and water spewed from broken pipes. The elevator was stuck, trapping a janitor who had to be freed by firefighters.
Stone chunks the size of watermelons had rained down from the building behind the restaurant and tumbled down a stairway into the basement.
“I thought we wouldn’t open for a long time,” Farmerie recalled last week.
But in fact, the first-floor bar reopened that night, and by Monday evening, full food and beverage service had been restored. The disaster that Farmerie feared instead turned out to be a relatively minor setback, most likely because of seismic upgrades on the century-old building.
The Thomas and the square block of mostly historic buildings on which it is situated illuminates a stark portrait of the benefits of bringing buildings up to current seismic standards, as well as the potential downside of not doing so. In contrast, three buildings on Brown Street behind the Thomas have been red-tagged, meaning they are now too dangerous to enter. City officials said they were among the last buildings in Napa awaiting seismic upgrades.
City officials consider the buildings such a threat that they banned entry to several surrounding buildings, including one where Rick Molinari operates a cafe.
He was in the process of opening the cafe, called Molinari’s, on Monday when an inspector shut the building, even though it suffered no apparent damage after recently undergoing a seismic retrofit.
“I’m frustrated because the owner on the other side of me didn’t do his job,” Molinari said.
In 1986, California mandated that local governments identify unreinforced masonry buildings. But how cities approached the problem was up to them. The result, experts say, has been a patchwork of regulations and mixed results in gaining compliance for what most consider to be a matter of urgent public safety.
In Sonoma County, as many as 170 structures in the unincorporated area alone could present a safety risk because of their use of unreinforced masonry — brick, stone or cinder blocks mortared together, largely without supporting steel rods required for decades by building codes. Inspectors were fanning out across the county last week to assess damage and report any new safety concerns.
Most Wine Country cities, pressed by the necessity to bring their buildings up to code and a more recent push to save historic downtown buildings, have made quicker progress than unincorporated areas in shoring up their unreinforced structures.
The magnitude-6.0 earthquake in Napa, striking as close as it did to the 25th anniversary of the devastating Loma Prieta temblor, may prove to be another galvanizing moment for communities that exist in earthquake zones nationwide, said Melvyn Green, a structural engineer in Torrance who consults with agencies statewide.
“What we come up with here, with this experience, will be added to” seismic safety codes in cities across the nation that are grappling with the issue, Green said.