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Shaky South El Monte Takes It in Stride


SOUTH EL MONTE — The way most residents figure it, you do what you can and try not to worry about what you can't.

Wedged between the San Gabriel River and the Rio Hondo, this tiny San Gabriel Valley industrial city is built on sandy, alluvial ground--"old river bed," as Assistant City Manager Steve Henley decribes it.

State experts say a major earthquake--the big one--could liquefy the city's base, churning up the ground and the subterranean water table like a Manhattan in a cocktail shaker.

"Most engineers we've talked to say there's not much we can do about it," said Henley, who also is the city's emergency services coordinator. "The ground shakes, and the water and sand mix. The only thing we could do is excavate the sand, putting in a sturdier base, or get rid of the water. Neither are practical."

Knowledgeable residents in this city of 19,800 tend to shrug off the extra dangers.

Seven miles east of downtown Los Angeles, South El Monte has more than 1,300 businesses, one for every 15 residents. Companies such as chicken wholesalers Zacky Foods and Foster Farms and sportswear manufacturer Joni Blair have established home bases there because of the city's central location and its fiscal policies, with no property taxes, utility taxes or business license fees.

In recent years, the city has also become a Latino enclave. Three-quarters of the population is Spanish-surnamed, according to city officials. Many are particularly worried about earthquake dangers.

"Because of a lot of bad experiences by family members in Mexico City (during an 8.1-magnitude quake in 1985), they're more sensitive than a lot of other people," said Patrick Sayne, superintendent of the city's Valle Lindo School District.

Still, residents have some reason for consolation. Although parts of the city are barely a mile from the epicenter of the Oct. 1, 1987, Whittier Narrows 5.9-magnitude earthquake, damage was negligible.

Damage in the city was so slight--about $50,000 worth--that the city had to return a $150,000 state disaster assistance loan that was rushed through after the quake. "Nobody ever qualified for the money," Henley said.

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