In the immediate aftermath of the South Napa earthquake last year, Napa officials sent out a mutual aid request to marshal teams of building inspectors to canvass about 24,000 homes, businesses and other facilities.
The aim was to check for damage and to issue yellow or red tags that would restrict or prohibit access to the structures. The effort mainly was to ensure public safety, not to document needs for financial assistance.
Mike Parness, Napa’s city manager, said the subsequent challenge has been to convince federal officials that the damage was extensive enough to warrant federal aid.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency finally made that call in late October, allowing individuals in Napa and Solano counties, including renters, home and business owners, along with local governments, to apply for disaster assistance.
At the time, state officials estimated uninsured liabilities from the quake to be about $200 million. A FEMA official, meanwhile, described the agency’s decision as a “close call,” reflecting the often clouded view hampering earthquake damage assessments.
“If you have a flood or fire, you get in a helicopter with the governor and pretty easily see that it’s a disaster,” Parness said. “With an earthquake, you drive down the street and things may look fine. But go in the backyard or inside, and you realize the house isn’t on its foundation.”
He said the reimbursement amount the city is seeking from FEMA includes more than $1 million the city spent on debris collection after the earthquake. For days following Aug. 24, the bins overflowed with broken television sets and other items brought to the collection sites.
Napa Mayor Jill Techel said city officials didn’t realize that after Hurricane Katrina, FEMA began requiring documentation of discarded items to prevent fraud. She said one lesson learned from the quake is to document everything.
“If I was a mayor in a city that had a disaster, I think my advice would be to call the city that had the last disaster and learn from that experience,” she said. “The state says one thing, and FEMA says another.”
Napa County is seeking millions in reimbursements for deductibles on buildings covered by earthquake insurance. That includes about $2.9 million on four buildings, including the historic courthouse, which sits unoccupied and fenced off because of safety concerns, and the Hall of Justice, which includes the county’s jail.
In the case of the courthouse, FEMA has yet to approve project guidelines needed to get inside the building and assess the damage, which is likely to cost millions in repairs. There’s no timeline yet as to when the repairs might begin.
“It’s frustrating,” said Kerry John Whitney, the county’s risk and emergency services manager. “If we didn’t have the FEMA piece, we would be reimbursed by insurance and we would be further down the road with our repairs. It creates complexity that is very difficult to explain.”
The county also has submitted 30 requests for reimbursement of about $6.5 million for work on roads, bridges and other infrastructure damaged by the quake. So far, FEMA has agreed to reimburse the county about $760,000 for those and other projects.
Sonoma County sought state and federal funding to pay for $5.3 million in damage to public and private property from the quake, said Tennis Wick, director of the county Permit and Resource Management Department. The county did not qualify for any money, he said.