Class Action: Lessons Learned from the Napa Quake

Lives and landmarks were forever altered early that Sunday morning. Fires erupted, streets buckled and old facades in downtown Napa crumbled.

But just a mile away, the historic Napa Union High School sustained no structural damage, even though it was built in the 1920’s. Despite the earth’s roar, none of Napa Valley Unified School District’s 30 schools suffered any structural damage.

"That’s a real testament to how well schools are built," says Mark Quattrocchi, an architect and partner at Quattrocchi Kwok Architects in Santa Rosa. "But what was dramatic and what was hard to see was the contents - what happened inside those classrooms."

Still photos taken inside Napa schools show debris littered across classroom floors. It was a daunting cleanup to be sure, but some experts say also an indicator of troubling problems.

Overheard lights fell to the floor. Book shelves toppled and blocked exits. And a file cabinet lurched forward on to desks.

Quattrocchi was one of nine inspectors who walked through schools in the days after the quake.

"We have bookcases, teacher cabinets, upper cabinets; we saw a number of those that fell off because they weren’t properly braced to the walls," he says. "In some cases, no question they would have fallen and injured a student if it had hit them."

At Pueblo Vista Elementary School, the biggest potential danger came from above.

"When I walked in to the first couple of classrooms I realized what we had was a complete failure with the suspension system of the light fixtures themselves," says Don Evans, a construction manager for Napa Valley Unified.

The lights in 13 classrooms at Pueblo Vista have been removed for safety. Wires hang from the ceilings and, four weeks after the quake, windows provide the only light for learning.

Some projectors have been removed too. The two-bolt attachment at the ceiling wasn’t enough to keep them in place. And yet in another classroom, the projector held by six bolts remains safe, and still in use.

"It’s a learning lesson for us and would recommend to all school districts that they talk with their inspectors," Evans says.

As Napa Valley Unified - and school districts across the Bay Area - grapple with the repercussions of the quake, one simple truth remains.

"We were so lucky. This happened at three o’clock in the morning on a Sunday," Quattrocchi says. "And let’s not lose the gift that that’s given us."

Any cabinet less than six feet tall that’s brought into a classroom technically does not have to be bolted to the wall or floor. The state recommends they should be secured, but it is not required.

Napa Valley Unified is considering implementing a zone around classroom exits to prevent large furniture from falling and blocking the way out. There are no state-wide codes or laws establishing a safe zone around classroom exits.

Contact Us