Aftershocks Being Felt in Ridgecrest Six Months After Quake

Six months after twin earthquakes hit the California desert community of Ridgecrest — magnitudes 6.4 and 7.1 just 34 hours apart — damage has been identified, repairs have been planned and many have already been made.

by Stacey Shepard, The Bakersfield Californian / January 6, 2020
Visitors cross Highway 178 next to a crack left on the road by an earthquake Sunday, July 7, 2019, near Ridgecrest, Calif. AP

(TNS) — The books are back on the shelves at Red Rock bookstore. A little farther down Ridgecrest Boulevard, the shelves are restocked at the Eastridge Market convenience store. And the cracks in Highway 178 where the Earth's surface split open have been fixed.

But Hannah Urquhart, 17, noticed the star on B-Mountain wasn't lit up this holiday season as it has been for so many years. The electrical system was damaged and it hasn't yet been fixed, she'd heard.

And she lamented that Sierra Lanes, the local bowling alley, had closed for good. Its owners in a Facebook post in August cited earthquake damage among other factors in their decision to shut down after 32 years in business.

And then there are the aftershocks.

"I think right now, we might not talk about it as much but every little shake you hold on and think, 'Is this happening again?'" said Urquhart, who works at Red Rock Bookstore and was in a grocery store with her parents when the first quake hit and felt like "the whole store was crumbling around you."

Six months after twin earthquakes hit the desert community of Ridgecrest — magnitudes 6.4 and 7.1 just 34 hours apart — the damage has been identified, repairs have been planned and many have already been made.

But recovery? That's still a work in progress, according to many.

The thousands upon thousands of aftershocks that continue to impact the city bring near-daily reminders of what happened on July 4 and 5 to those who survived it, and, worse, the fear that another major quake could be happening again.

Adding to this anxiety, a Caltech study recently reported the nearby Garlock Fault line, which is capable of a magnitude 8 temblor, has begun to move as a result of the July earthquakes that struck Ridgecrest.

Customers still talk about the earthquakes all the time, said Mike Kastown, 22, who manages the Eastridge Market.

"The aftershocks are really scary. It wakes you up when you sleep. In their homes, people can’t put things too high up. They can't put their TVs back," he said.

Kern County Supervisor Mick Gleason, who lives in and represents Ridgecrest, said the community is still struggling with emotions from the earthquakes.

"When you stood there and shook like we shook, and watched buildings shake like we did, there’s a long-term impact," he said.

Gleason was out to dinner with a group of friends at a restaurant in Ridgecrest on July 5 when the second and more forceful magnitude 7.1 quake hit. Suddenly he was helping people get to safety.

"It was a visual I’ve never seen before whether I saw a building swaying, the real genuine fear in people's eyes as they were running out of a building, cars shaking on their tires. You couldn’t walk straight," Gleason said.

But when aftershocks aren't rattling walls, windows and people's nerves, the community looks back with pride on its response, and city leaders have quickly gotten to work tallying damage and finding ways to pay for it.

Ridgecrest Police Chief Jed McLaughlin lauded the county fire, sheriff's and emergency operations teams, as well as the Delano, Arvin, Bakersfield and Taft police departments, which pitched in patrolling and responding to calls after the quakes.

By all accounts, there was no shortage of goodwill and help from Kern County and neighboring communities.

"The outreach we received was amazing," McLaughlin said. "I expect it from Kern County because that’s the kind of county we have."

Another bit of good news was the recent announcement that Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein have secured nearly $3 billion in funding to restore China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station.

China Lake by far endured the most extensive damage, with estimates around $4 billion to $5 billion to fully repair and replace all the damage, mainly because so many structures were built decades ago before earthquake standards were implemented. The base was so damaged it was put on "mission not capable status."

The base's recovery is also critical to Ridgecrest's recovery, according to Gleason, who served 27 years in the U.S. Navy and was at one point commanding officer of the China Lake base.

"Ridgecrest is a Navy town so for Ridgecrest to thrive and succeed, the Navy needs to thrive and succeed," Gleason said. "So the future of Ridgecrest is bright because Congressman McCarthy’s done a fabulous job and the people we have advocating for us in D.C. have done a fabulous job."

If you drove through Ridgecrest immediately after the quakes, it would be hard to notice much damage. There were a couple of fires and some chimneys caved in but the most significant damage was to about 40 mobile homes, which came off their bases or were otherwise uninhabitable.

Infrastructure throughout the city also endured damage, though it was not major or extensive. City buildings suffered some minor structural damage that needs repair. Though water service to customers was never interrupted, the Indian Wells Valley Water District developed leaks in a couple of storage tanks, had problems with two pumps and minor structural damage to a building totaling about $1 million, said general manager Don Zdeba.

Cerro Coso Community College suffered an estimated $2 million in damage to its buildings, according to a news release from the college, and the Sierra Sands Unified School District also had structural damage including at two elementary schools where the start of the school year was delayed. Gleason said the Inyokern airport also suffered damage to its runway.

The Kern Community College District and Indian Wells Valley Water District had reserves it could use to pay for repairs right away, and most of the agencies will be seeking some reimbursement from the state. The city did not qualify for federal disaster aid, however.

That's something Ridgecrest Mayor Peggy Breeden feels a sense of unfairness about. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency guidelines, a community must have more than $56 million in public damages to qualify for federal assistance. Though numbers have varied, state officials have put the damage in Ridgecrest around $30 million.

Breeden called it a flawed procedure and feels that eligibility for post-disaster funding should be based on the economic impact of damages on an area, not just a dollar amount.

"What we needed was greater damage before we were going to get the help we needed and that seems arbitrary and unfair," Breeden said. "Whether it’s $1 million or $100 billion, it still means people need help. And that’s what we pay taxes for … because it’s appropriate and needed."

The California Seismic Safety Commission seemed to agree. It has proposed that FEMA base its eligibility thresholds on a percentage of a jurisdiction's annual gross economic product in a report of findings and recommendations from the Ridgecrest earthquakes issued in September.

"One size truly doesn't fit all if you're in a more rural area like Ridgecrest and Trona," said Mike Gardner, chairman of the California Seismic Safety Commission.

Still, Gardner said he was impressed with how the Ridgecrest community responded in the wake of the biggest earthquake in two decades in California.

"Being smaller, less developed and far from resources, they’re used to being innovative and on their own," he said. "I was impressed with how well the community did and the support they gave each other."

For Mayor Breeden, the work still continues, both the structural repairs to buildings and infrastructure and grappling with the psychological toll on the community.

She recalled the families that sought refuge at the city's community center and how the children loved it at first. But after 36 hours, homesickness set in and Breeden remembered one little boy crying to his mom that he wanted to go home.

"That’s what I don’t think everybody has recovered from," she said, "watching your kid cry because they can’t go home."

Six months later, Ridgecrest has unmet needs and unfulfilled expectations, Breeden said.

"Yet, we are OK," she said. "We are working together and that’s what makes this community unique."

Stacey Shepard can be reached at 661-395-7417.

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