Quake Reminds Us That You Can’t Put a Price on Human Life

TrefethenTwo weeks and two days have passed since the largest earthquake to hit Northern California in a quarter-century rocked the Napa Valley.

We reported on the quake the day after it hit, sharing friend and colleague Jim Caudill’s early impressions. He was awakened by the shaking, and the word he used to describe it was as good as any other assessment I’ve heard in the quake’s aftermath: “gnarly.”

The next day, we included a picture of a badly damaged historical building at Trefethen Family Vineyards. Its damage looked a lot like that sustained by so many buildings in downtown Napa.

Early assessments of the overall damage ranged from the tens of millions to a billion dollars. Such assessments are educated guesses, at best, and we probably won’t know the full economic impact for months.

One thing we all can agree upon is that the timing of the earthquake — 3:20 a.m. — couldn’t have been better, as magnitude 6.0 quakes go. Most of Napa Valley’s wineries sustained little, if any, structural damage. Their greatest losses came in the form of lost wine, spilled from broken and shattered barrels. Had the quake occurred during regular operating hours, it’s likely those flying barrels would have killed several people.

Lost wine is sad. Lost lives would have been tragic.

Once the clean-up was completed at wineries, many owners began thinking about how they could better “ride out” the next big quake — which could come in 25 years or 25 days. According to one report, most of the destroyed barrels were set loose from two-barrel racks, whereas sturdier four-barrel racks seemed to fare better. It also seems that the higher the racks were stacked, the more likely they were to let barrels loose.

Moving forward, winery owners must assess their rack systems not only as “line items,” but for their safety. The two concerns are not independent of one another. In the case of Silver Oak Cellars, according to an Associated Press report, “each full barrel that stayed put and didn’t break represented upwards of $32,500 in wine saved.”

But beyond that, we should not forget that every life saved is priceless.

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