— Urban areas hardest hit, rural well damage a concern
Cattle ranchers and their families were among the hundreds of thousands rudely jolted awake at 3:20 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 24, when the worst earthquake to hit northern California in 25 years struck with a vengeance, causing an estimated $1 billion in damage, injuring more than 200 people, wreaking widespread havoc.
The epicenter for the 6.0 San Francisco Bay area quake was in Napa Valley, the heart of grape country where vineyards produce some of the nation’s finest wines. Downtown Napa was perhaps hardest hit by the strong quake and aftershocks with extensive damage seen virtually everywhere. Wineries also sustained a direct hit.
“I’ve never felt anything this strong, nothing of this magnitude. This has been the strongest one I’ve ever felt,” said Jeff Becker, a 65-year-old rancher who has been ranching about 25 miles from Napa for more than 40 years. “I certainly felt it. It was impossible to miss.”
Becker said he is grateful his water sources and wells were not damaged, and no hay stacks fell. “I was very fortunate through the luck of the draw,” Becker told the Western Livestock Journal. “What I think is becoming clear…reports are coming in of well casings sheared off or collapsed, and wells being ruined in the fault area.”
The powerful tremor was nothing to laugh about, he said. Waking up to the house shaking and quaking like an angry bronco or bull is scary, Becker said, adding he worries about terrified, abruptly awakened children whose schools and day cares were closed. Government offices and businesses also were shut down.
“Because it happened at night and we were all asleep, it’s really hard to reconstruct,” he said. “There was a lot of suffering and disruption. It doesn’t affect my operation, but everybody knows somebody who was hurt or impacted by this. …There’s a lot of emotional parts to this.”
The earthquake compounded problems for ranchers who are coping with one of the worst droughts in California’s history that has spiked hay prices and eliminated summer range. Becker has reduced his cattle herd down to a few dozen cows as a result.
“A lot of us cut way back,” he said. “Thank God the calves we do manage to produce are worth something. Otherwise, we couldn’t stay in business. We’re all praying for a really good winter. …Quite frankly, last winter was an ordeal for all of us. …With poor spring growth, you can get into trouble in a hurry.”
It appears the earthquake was more of a disaster and tragedy for urban residents than ranchers. “It’s humbling,” Becker said. “I hope other cattle producers around here got through it. There’s nothing like a little natural disaster to make you appreciate the little things.”
Diane Chance and her children have been running Chance Ranches by themselves in the eastern part of the Napa Valley since her husband Larry died about three years ago. They have about 75 head and live on five acres, leasing about 1,500 acres.
“For us, there was no damage at all, but we woke up right at 3:20 right when it was starting. It went on and on. It was scary. We thought it would never stop,” Chance said, noting the worst damage was in the valley’s western area. “This one really shook the house.”
Elsewhere, roads were damaged, buckled and cracked. Homes were knocked off their foundations. Many historical buildings are unsafe to enter or occupy. Tens of thousands lost power. Water mains broke. Firefighters had to helplessly watch mobile homes burn to the ground for lack of water pressure. A hospital also was damaged and set up triage in a parking lot.
“Many of our friends and some of our family sustained a lot of damage,” Chance told WLJ.
Bill Morgan and his wife moved to their 300-acre ranch about 15 miles from Napa in 1977. The latest quake was one of the worst he can remember, rivaling the Frisco quake of 1989. Unlike that one which was more rolling, the latest one caused his bed to pitch back and forth.
Thankfully, his water pipes, cattle and horses were not harmed. “The dog was a little upset, but other than that, everything is back to normal,” Morgan told WLJ, noting his neighbors also did not experience much damage. One lady, however, remarked to him, “I’m waiting for the big one. What else are you going to do?” C.J. Borelli’s ranch is over a mountain range and valley away from Napa. He said neither he nor his neighbors suffered damage from the earthquake. Although it may not have ranked as high on the Richter scale, it was one of the worst he has lived through, said Borelli, who is 80.
“It was scary, really scary. It sounded like a freight train coming right through the house,” Borelli said. “It wasn’t a slow rolling motion. It was as if a giant jackhammer was on the side of the house. It was like a machine gun.” — Mark Mendiola, WLJ Correspondent