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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.

The images we see in our mind’s eye when we think back would seem strange to those whose memories of the city’s center don’t reach back that far.

Santa Rosa then, like Napa now, was “given the opportunity” (one way to put it) to reconfigure the downtown. Smart-ass columnists of the day referred to the quake as “nature’s urban renewal.”

That turned out to be more truth than poetry. It was the federal government’s Housing and Urban Development Agency that bought the land the earthquakes wiped clean.

THERE ARE DIFFERENCES, of course. First the magnitude. Our earthquakes were magnitude 5.6 and 5.7, but the one-two punch made the damage extensive. Napa’s was 6.0 — and earthquakes, remember, increase exponentially in force, so the difference between 5.7 and 6.0 packs considerably more than a point three wallop.

Napa is half-again as populous as Santa Rosa was in ’69 (roughly 70,000 to our 50,000)

And Napa’s downtown is generally considered charming. The Napa River runs through it. Several historic buildings, including the Opera House, have been rehabbed in recent years. It is charming, as befits a tourist town. In recent years, it has bustled with tourists and residents alike.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Santa Rosa’s downtown in 1969 was neither charming nor bustling. It was old. It hadn’t changed much from the business district that was rebuilt after the 1906 quake. And its glory was fading fast. There were two big hotels, the Occidental and the Santa Rosa Hotel, both outdated since the late ’50s-early ’60s by the Flamingo and El Rancho and Los Robles Lodge on the edges of town. There were two department stores, small specialty shops (shoes, women’s wear, millinery), three or four drugstores and three banks (the only three in town!). There were a couple of coffee shops and/or soda fountains, the fanciest restaurant in the county and lots and lots of bars, many of them with residence hotels on the upper floors.

The parts of Fourth Street that were hardest hit were the blocks from Courthouse Square west to the freeway. The two aforementioned hotels, the Poulsen Building, with its second floor Rainbow Ballroom, Hardisty’s, the pioneer coffee, tea, spice and cookware store, the Elks Lodge upstairs, Lou’s Sporting Goods and Levin’s Hardware Store, which was so set in its early century merchandising methods as to be considered an anachronism.

Developer Hugh Codding had been raiding Fourth Street for most of the decade, luring the most prosperous businesses to the new concept of his regional shopping center.

In addition, the county had moved out, building the new seat of government on Mendocino Avenue north of town.

Lots of people think the courthouse went down in those quakes. But it didn’t. It had been gone (but not forgotten) for four years by 1969.

WHAT WE REMEMBER about that night: our TV set falling face forward during a Cary Grant movie, the water main on our block becoming a geyser, the 7-year-old philosopher in our household who slept through the first quake and observed when the next one hit that “One good thing about an earthquake is that by the time you know it’s coming, it’s pretty much gone.”

We remember, too, the widely-circulated photo of the Miramar on Third Street where a brick wall collapsed over a parked car thereby creating an image, which, along with the emptied grocery shelves in Brookside Terrace Market, has seemed to be repeated with other brick walls and other markets in Northridge, in Eureka, in Santa Cruz and in every earthquake since.

We think about those big front windows at Rosenberg’s (now Barnes & Noble) that had sailed out into the streets and sidewalks, leaving the mannequins wearing the latest fall fashions exposed to the night air.

Chimneys were a conversation topic. Everybody who had one had to have it inspected, and many were found to have bricks that cracked and mortar that crumbled.

There was damage at Memorial Hospital, even while babies were being born, and Sister Jennie May, one of the nurses in white habits who were the trademark of that hospital in those years, broke her wrist when she fell, attempting to catch falling bottles in the hospital’s pharmacy.

The city’s two-story parking garage at Ross and B streets, across from the California Theater, was closed immediately and removed in favor of a surface lot, which is still there, although the Cal Theater is not, a victim not of the quakes but of the mall.

But the majority of the 100 or so buildings that were rendered unsafe by those quakes were removed only after endless rounds of inspections and loud protests from many landlords.

YES, NAPA RESIDENTS are going to look back, say around 2055, and remember what that town looked like then.

We urge them to be patient in the years to come because it will take some time to put the town back together again. Tearing down, deciding and rebuilding takes a very long time. In Santa Rosa, given the fact that city leaders opted for a mall, there were lawsuits as well. It was more than 10 years before we stopped making rueful jokes abut the pastureland in the heart of town.

Napa, with considerably more damage if early estimates hold, won’t have the same problems. The mall-building days seem to be past. But there will be others — unknowns. We have no advice. Only empathy.

MEANWHILE, I have been reminded to keep some slip-on shoes beside my bed. I mentally measure the crack in the hallway ceiling to see if it’s bigger. It may be. I can’t tell. I should have taken a measurement when it first appeared.

My earthquake insurance is paid. I have a barrel of canned goods and water and all the etceteras stowed in the yard, safely away from the house.

Since I have no plans to move farther inland, that’s all I can do. Except remember.

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