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Volunteers flock to Napa to lend quake victims a helping hand

A day after the temblor, inspectors had deemed 70 buildings in Napa uninhabitable
'Everyone is connected through the idea that they want to help,' says one volunteer
'The kindness of strangers just keeps on amazing me,' says one woman who received help from a crew of helpers

They came in a flurry of orange, descending on this quake-ravaged neighborhood with brooms, shovels and dozens of hands.

Then they formed a human chain in Lori Lemieux' frontyard, passing the crumbled bricks of her home's fallen chimney into a waiting truck bed.

The retired clerical supervisor watched in awe Monday morning. She and her husband had lost every wineglass in Sunday's 6.0 magnitude shaker, the largest to strike the Bay Area in a quarter-century. Furniture splintered. Worse still, mementos of their daughter, who died a decade ago when she was 17, were destroyed.

And now, strangers were helping.

"When you have something so devastating happen, to see this teamwork is just awesome," she said of the dozens of Home Depot workers from a number of Northern California communities who offered their help. "Blessings do happen."

The volunteers had company. A day after the temblor, inspectors had deemed 70 buildings here uninhabitable. The number of people treated for injuries had risen to 208, and schools remained closed. But residents and outsiders alike had found a common calling.

"When you meet people who are helping each other, there's no difference between religions or between colors," said Premysl Balaz, a 33-year-old engineer from the Czech Republic who was a week into a San Francisco vacation when the earthquake hit.

He drove up, found the temporary volunteer center, and was dispatched Monday to help build a database of red-tagged homes.

"Everyone is connected through the idea that they want to help," Balaz said. "I love the energy about it."

It didn't take long for the helpers to amass.

At Grace Church of Napa Valley on Sunday morning, congregants prayed and then made a list. Up top was a couple whose home sits directly on the fault.

After the earth split, Tim and Ann Whitlock's two-story house ended up six inches in front of its foundation. Big cracks zigzagged up the interior walls, and the sidewalk buckled into the shape of a tepee.

Throughout the day, fellow congregants — about 100 of them — helped pack everything into boxes and big plastic containers.

"Who says you can't move in six hours?" said Ann Whitlock.

Across town, Patricia Trimble was wading through a mess of broken pottery and glass at the Roost, her downtown vintage store, when a stranger walked in.

"He said he was drawn to me. He quoted Yeats," Trimble said of Marc Liotta, a Walnut Creek contractor with a near-addiction to reaching out to strangers. Liotta picked up the bags of debris and tossed them in the bed of his silver Toyota Tundra for a courtesy run to the dump.

"And you know what he did then?" Trimble said Monday as she listened to the melancholy sounds of Rickie Lee Jones in her quickly shaping-up boutique. "He went to my house and offered his help there."

Liotta, whose card reads "The Closet Magician," is semi-retired. In addition to building closet organizing systems, he has volunteered for Habitat for Humanity (as has Trimble) and flown to Haiti to offer his assistance after the earthquake.

"I was sort of languishing around here watching television and said, 'I'm gonna just go up there,'" said Liotta, 69, who was tipped off to Trimble's plight by the plywood on her window.

By Monday morning, more help arrived. At the volunteer center in the Grace church gym, Gregg DesElms welcomed a woman who said she'd taken the day off work.

He started to explain that he didn't have anywhere to send her or Balaz, the visiting engineer. Then DesElms' cellphone rang.

"Yes," he said. "I have two people here right now, and they're ready to go."

He hung up and turned to Balaz.

"How's your English and your typing?" he asked.

"So-so," Balaz said.

The police chief needed help entering numbers and addresses of red-tagged structures.

"Oh, I'm good with numbers," Balaz said, smiling. "I'm in, I'm in."

By afternoon, "Cartoon" Danny Roszell was offering his services to merchants. He tends to travel with a broom, though he insists he is no witch, but "a leprechaun incarnate." A window painter by trade, the Berkeley resident had come to Napa 10 days ago to help a friend with her house and look for gigs adorning glass with images of the grape harvest.

After the quake, he decided to put his broom to use. He showed up downtown in a white wool top hat adorned with a live flower bouquet.

"It's what I do," he said, of his sweeping habit. "It's a kind of meditation."

A few blocks away, Rod Wieldraayer was hauling free materials from the Napa Home Depot store to about 60 volunteers as they hopscotched through town.

Wieldraayer, the store manager, also happens to live here. The company often organizes its workers in small volunteer armies, so Monday's massive mobilization came naturally.

The bed of his truck was already loaded with a stack of plywood, crates of water and garbage bags when his cellphone rang. It was his district manager.

"Boxes? Medium boxes?" Wieldraayer said. "I'm on it."

A family with a red-tagged home needed them, so Wieldraayer returned to the store to fetch them and renew his supply of angle brackets, for residents now scrambling to secure their heavy furniture to the wall.

Meanwhile, in the Browns Valley neighborhood, where Lemieux lives, the crew was moving street to street.

Within no time, they had re-stacked a tumbled-down wood pile, hauled off debris from two other fallen chimneys, and disassembled a hulking planter once built onto Darcie Blair's front porch.

Blair, 45, a single mother with a 4-year-old daughter, lived in Northridge when the big quake struck there in 1994, but said she never felt anywhere close to the support she is getting in Napa. Within minutes of their departure, she had posted pictures of the Home Depot helpers on Facebook.

"The kindness of strangers just keeps on amazing me," she wrote. "As my daughter and I continue to clean up here in Napa, the folks from Home Depot just completely dismantled and hauled away for free a large part of our front porch.

"Thank you, good neighbors. You rock."

lee.romney@latimes.com

Twitter: @leeromney

marisa.gerber@latimes.com

Twitter: @marisagerber

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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