When a police officer approached them Saturday, Telma Cuadra and two of her children were in the parking lot of an appliance store near their Alhambra home, preparing to spend another night in their car.
Last Thursday's earthquake had left cracks in the walls and foundation of their home, and they were afraid to sleep there. Many of Cuadra's neighbors were also sleeping outside, either in their cars or on their lawns.
Cuadra said she was concerned when the officer stopped to talk.
"I told him we were afraid inside because the building was cracked, and he said, 'There's a place you can stay.' "
The officer sent them to the Joslyn Adult Recreation Center in Alhambra, where the Red Cross opened an evacuation center the morning the quake hit.
"They're very nice here," said Cuadra's 12-year-old daughter, Sara, after two days at the center. "They make sure you have enough to eat. If you're sad or crying, they come over and comfort you."
Up to 120 people a night have been sleeping on the bright green and blue canvas folding cots that Red Cross volunteers have crammed into the Joslyn center's offices and dining room.
Normally a recreation center where senior citizens can play bridge or brush up on their ballroom dancing, the facility has been temporarily transformed into a communal home for dozens of San Gabriel Valley residents displaced by the earthquake.
Red Cross officials said they set up the shelter at the Joslyn center because Alhambra was one of the hardest-hit cities. They estimated that about 90% of the evacuees at the center were from Alhambra and the rest from Rosemead, Monterey Park, San Gabriel and Baldwin Park.
In addition to providing shelter, the Red Cross has served three meals a day and helped people who lost their homes find new housing.
"It's not home sweet home," said Red Cross spokesman Thomas Brakeman, "but it's sure better than sleeping out in the weather."
The evacuees who gathered Monday for a lunch of sandwiches and juice in the center's dining room agreed.
"These Red Cross people have been a big help. Without them, I don't think I would have made it," said Debbie Martin of Alhambra, who came to the center Thursday with her boyfriend and her two children. "From the minute we got here, I felt relieved. This is a safe building."
Martin said the sprawling, one-story Joslyn center felt as strong as a fortress compared to the apartment building where she and her family had lived for the past month.
"When the earthquake hit on Thursday, it looked like the building was going to fall down," said Martin, shaking her head. "The toilet exploded. The floor shifted. The refrigerator opened, and all the food fell out on the floor."
At the center, Sunday morning's aftershock was much less frightening, she said.
Martin's boyfriend, Gary Hildebrand, agreed: "When I felt it starting, I covered her and the kids up with my body. One of the things that cover the lights fell, but that was all."
Telma Cuadra was impressed by the way the Red Cross reacted to Sunday's temblor.
"The volunteers are special people," she said. "When the earthquake hit, they didn't run for the door. They ran to the babies that were crying."
Spirits at the center were generally high. Most people were thankful to have escaped the earthquake unhurt.
"At least it wasn't that major," said Lydia Synegard, though her Alhambra apartment building was condemned after last Thursday's quake. A picture window shattered, and "the apartment shook like someone had it in their fist," she said.
Almost everyone admitted that the aftershock Sunday had set already raw nerves on edge. Many mothers said they had kept their children home from school Monday because the youngsters had been too scared to sleep the night before.
"During the day, everyone's calm," said Sara Cuadra. "But at night people cry, people get nervous. I get these pains in my heart every time I think about it."
Chantal Turner-Robinson, a neighbor of Martin's who moved to the center on Saturday with her 5-month-old baby, said she has had a headache since the first tremor hit last Thursday.
"I go in to the nurse every four hours to get aspirin," she said. "I'm just on edge."
As people waited in line to take showers, meet with social workers and use the pay phone, they wondered where they would go when the left the center.
Turner-Robinson had already decided.
"I want to go back East," she said. "I wouldn't mind snow, rain, anything but earthquakes. Anything is better than this."
Telma Cuadra, who moved to Los Angeles in 1978 from Nicaragua, said she, too, was thinking of leaving the area. Last week's earthquake, she said, had brought back too many unhappy memories of worse disasters in her native country.
"I want to avoid another one," Cuadra said. "In my country, once we went for 20 days without water, without electricity. All the houses fell down.
"It is difficult for us to move again because we already have the experience of coming here and leaving our houses and things behind," she said. "But I think maybe in two years we will move, to Miami or to Denver."
By Tuesday morning, people at the center seemed to have fallen into an almost normal routine. By 9 a.m., most of the children had left for school. A few parents stayed behind to care for toddlers and infants, but most of the adults had gone to work or to look for new housing.
Mary Cammarano, a Red Cross volunteer who had been working at the center since last Thursday, sighed as she signed in some new residents.
"You look around here and you just count your blessings," she said. "I've been around here a few days, and it makes me so thankful for everything I have."