LeBaron: Santa Rosa's '69 earthquakes show Napa what lies ahead

  • Bricks from the three-story Galeazzi building tumbled onto a car on the evening of Oct. 1, 1969.

The damage estimates keep rising. The photos of devastation, inside and outside, greet us on Facebook, on the evening news and in our morning papers.

“Napa” and “earthquake” are two words that have become like one word this past week and will remain so — at least until the next big one jolts another unlucky town.

If all this doesn’t bring you close-to-home echoes of an earthquake past, then you’re not old enough to remember the back-to-back shakers that did to Santa Rosa pretty much what last Sunday morning’s roller did to Napa.

For those who do remember it is, to coin a well-worn phrase, déjà vu all over again.

ON OCT. 1, 1969, at 9:40 p.m., two earthquakes an hour and a half apart, the second one larger than the first, rumbled across the Santa Rosa plain. This city of 50,000 had the bad luck to play host to the strongest earthquake recorded in the United States that calendar year. Odds are that Napa will have the dubious distinction this year.

Looking at the photos, hearing the reports of the heaps of bricks and plaster in the streets, the cracked and crumpled chimneys, broken water mains and gas lines, the ongoing inspections and condemned buildings that Napa’s 6.0 earthquake left behind, we can relate. Oh boy, can we relate!

But all we can offer Napa is the suggestion, based on experience, that the town — specifically the downtown — will never be the same again. Maybe better. Maybe just different. But not the same.

THERE IS MUCH to compare — starting with the happy parts. We remember that, like Napa, Santa Rosa’s quake of 45 years ago occurred at times when there were no people on downtown streets, which means no lives were lost and there were few serious injuries.

We remember that, like Napa, babies were born, proving that life goes on, despite the tectonic demons.

Apart from the black humor that always comes with disaster — the quirky stories centered on plumbing and the inevitable “Did the earth move?” anecdotes — that’s about all the happy comparisons we have to offer. Nobody gets nostalgic over an earthquake.

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