Former resident caught in Napa quake

San Francisco Bay Area's strongest earthquake in 25 years struck the heart of California's wine country early Sunday, Aug. 24, igniting gas-fed fires, damaging some of the region's famed wineries and historic buildings, and sending dozens of people to hospitals.

The magnitude-6.0 quake, centered near the city of Napa, an oasis of Victorian-era buildings nestled in the vineyard-studded hills of northern California, ruptured water mains and gas lines, hampering firefighters' efforts to extinguish the blazes that broke out after the temblor struck at 3:20 a.m.

Dazed residents who had run out of their homes in the dark and were too fearful of aftershocks to go back to bed wandered through Napa's historic downtown, where boulder-sized chunks of rubble and broken glass littered the streets. Dozens of homes and buildings across the Napa Valley were left unsafe to occupy, including an old county courthouse, where a 10-foot-wide hole opened a view of the offices inside.

Among the residents caught by surprise was a former Benton resident, Jerry Medlin, who said the 20-second quake was unexpected.

"I was absolutely terrified," Medlin said. "You have no idea how violent a large quake can be. It felt like our house had been grabbed by a large, angry fox terrier. My first thought was of the 4,700-pound Tesla parked 8 feet above our heads, hoping it wouldn’t come for a bedroom visit.

"We used our phones to find flashlights and went upstairs," he said. "Our house overlooks the city of Napa. All power was out and it was eerily quiet. It was still dark and we could see several fires burning across the city. Our power was out for about three hours."

Medlin said the Aug. 24 quake was not the first he has experienced. "We had just finished the house when the Loma Prieta quake occurred in 1979. Because we were closer to the epicenter, this one felt much stronger."

He noted that here was no damage in Napa from the 6.9 Loma Prieta quake. "I’ve experienced numerous smaller quakes during my 48 years in California," he said.

Medlin's home is built 200 feet up on a large outcrop of bedrock immediately east of downtown Napa. The area is called Alta Heights.

"The house sits on 10-foot concrete pilings drilled in to the bedrock," he said. "Our architect said we would get only one-tenth of the horizontal motion experienced by residents on the valley floor. We had a few overturned vases and lamps, but no major damage.

"The house was built exceptionally strong, with 2-by-6 exterior walls, extra-thick sheetrock and cross bracing," he said. "All of our pictures are hung on earthquake-resistant hangers and all free-standing shelving is attached to the wall. After all, we live in earthquake country."

Surveying the damage from the recent quake, Medlin photographed what he saw.

"I walked downtown later in the day. Brick buildings are rare in California and I could see why. Most of the old brick buildings downtown have been damaged, some beyond repair. There are at least 20 satellite trucks downtown all with accompanying reporters.  "Cleanup has started and many shops and restaurants are open for business. Ironically, the tornado damage you risk in Arkansas is covered by insurance, but earthquake insurance is a large, extra charge and only about 5 percent of California homes and businesses are covered."

He noted that most restaurants and wineries are open for business. "The most severe economic damage to Napa Valley will be lost tourism because most people have been led to believe otherwise."

Medlin lived in Benton from birth to age 22. He graduated from Benton High School in 1961. He also lived in Little Rock while attending UALR from 1943 through 1966, earning a degree in industrial engineering. His father, Lee Medlin, owned and operated Easy Way Tire Co. on East Street in Benton.

He is the owner and CFO of Medlin Accounting Software, "the world's oldest shareware company," according to Medlin, who noted that he is semi-retired.

"I moved to California because there were few job opportunities for industrial engineers in Arkansas. I have lived in California since January 1967. I moved to San Francisco at the beginning of the 'summer of love.' I also worked at Alameda Naval Air Rework Facility during the Vietnam War."

Medlin said not much will change for him because of the earthquake. "Since we have no damage, our plans really haven’t changed. We wouldn’t even think of moving from Napa. After all, we have survived the largest earthquake Napa has experienced since it was founded in 1947.

"Larger earthquakes have occurred in the Bay Area, like the 1906 earthquake, but as far as Napa is concerned, this was the largest."