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Viewpoints: We hate government, but should give it credit in Napa earthquake

Despite what happened during Sunday’s magnitude-6.0 earthquake in the Napa Valley, we should also take a step back to look at what didn’t happen – and the part that government played in limiting the destruction and confusion.

Of course, the region sustained damage, and the images left us stunned. But for the most part, major infrastructure held up well. We didn’t experience bridges failing, levees breaking, rail lines rupturing, or major power lines snapping. There was no confusion, poor coordination or equipment failure among first responders. Such glitches have happened before, often compounding the problems brought on by natural disasters such as quakes, fires and floods.

Overall, the emergency response from Gov. Jerry Brown on down went as smoothly as it possibly could have. Within hours, Pacific Gas & Electric had restored power to nearly all 70,000 customers who lost it, and Jack LaRochelle, Napa’s director of public works, told reporters that residents should have water service back in a week.

That’s no small comfort to those who suffered loss or serious damage to their homes or businesses, nor does it ease the pain of those who were injured.

For those who lost their mobile homes – four burned down at the Napa Valley Mobile Home Park – a gas shutoff valve might have prevented that. The collapsed chimney that put a 13-year-old boy in the hospital in serious condition had not been reinforced, unlike a neighbor’s that didn’t fall. In numerous stories about the economic impact to the region’s $13.3 billion wine industry, there’s no mention of whether these wineries have earthquake-protected storage.

It’s not to cruelly say, “shoulda, woulda, coulda,” but to note the point made by the California Department of Emergency Services: Now is a good time to check your own house or business. Is it structurally sound? Do you have an emergency supply kit to get your family through at least three days with enough food and water?

The Napa quake also points to something we often detest – government regulations, which in this case impose building standards that can make a huge difference in the cost of life and property.

Earlier this month, a magnitude-6.1 earthquake in southwestern China’s Yunnan province killed at least 600 people and injured more than 3,100. According to assessments so far, more than 80,000 homes were destroyed, and nearly 124,000 others were seriously damaged. Several hydroelectric dams may also have suffered damage.

Last year, in China, the Philippines, Pakistan, Iran and elsewhere, more than 1,700 people died and billions in property damage was done in major quakes, which the U.S. Geological Survey defines as magnitude-6.0 or higher.

By contrast, no one was killed in the Napa quake, and the USGS has put initial estimates of economic losses at $1 billion, although long-term costs to the wine and tourist industry could be as much as $4 billion.

The big difference is that California’s building codes simply don’t exist in other parts of the world, or even in other parts of the country. In May, the USGS issued an earthquake advisory for Oklahoma, the first of its kind for any state east of the Rockies. Oklahoma has experienced 145 quakes of 3.0 or higher in the first four months of 2014, more than California in the same period of time. Unlike California, structures in Oklahoma aren’t built to the same codes we have in the Golden State.

Some folks in Oklahoma might question whether the cost of retrofitting is worth it, and Californians have engaged in such debates in the past. Certainly, complaints about building codes are common when it comes to doing add-ons to a home, or even building a backyard shed – the muddled bureaucracy or the nit-pickiness of a local board. But those building codes and enforcements may well have played an important role in preventing far worse damage in the Napa Valley.

We were fortunate that the quake struck at 3 in the morning rather than 3 in the afternoon the day before during the Blues, Brews & BBQ festival in downtown Napa. No other major disasters were occurring nearby to draw away first responders.

Yeah, we got lucky, but we also got a lot of things right. The proof: By Monday morning, press conferences weren’t about an ongoing disaster, but about cleaning up and rebuilding.