JOSHUA TREE — There was no reading, writing or arithmetic Thursday morning at Joshua Tree Elementary School, a dusty collection of prefabricated buildings overlooking one of the many earthquake faults that crisscross this high desert outpost.
Nearly half of the school's 750 boys and girls never showed up for class, their parents too afraid to let them out of their sight. Those who did come ignored their lessons and talked about only one thing: the earthquake late Wednesday night that caused minor damage and no serious injuries across Southern California, but struck hardest here in the Morongo Valley Basin, rattling the nerves of its 70,000 residents.
"Every desk in the school was emptied, every bookshelf toppled," said Assistant Principal Mary Stevens, on her knees sorting through the mess in her office. "We told the teachers the emotional health of the kids was priority No. 1."
In a church not far away, more than two dozen people spent a sleepless night on Red Cross cots after the 6.1-magnitude temblor--and a seemingly unending series of thrashing aftershocks--made them too afraid to return to their jostled homes.
At least 15 people suffered earthquake-related injuries--six serious enough to require hospitalization--including a 74-year-old woman who broke her knee trying to evade a wobbling china cabinet.
Laura Swobeland was discovered on her living room floor by neighbors after she dragged herself to a telephone, only to find that the line was dead. Swobeland was listed in good condition Thursday.
Across the desert, power poles swayed, telephone service and electricity failed, mobile homes lurched from their foundations, store shelves packed with groceries toppled and the wall of at least one restaurant crumbled.
At several hotels and motels, anxious guests spent much of the night outdoors beneath blankets on lawn chairs--far from any falling plaster--while others loaded their car trunks and hit the road. In residential areas, some wary homeowners bedded down in the back of pickup trucks, visited friends, or checked into motels declared safe by crews of late-night building inspectors.
"I just want to go back to Germany," said German tourist Liane Drees, who spent the night in a Desert Hot Springs motel with her eyes on the door.
Authorities reported structural damage to homes and buildings from Palm Springs to Twentynine Palms, although the quake was felt hardest in communities closest to Joshua Tree National Monument, where seismologists pinpointed the epicenter.
San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies reported that structural damage, although mostly minor, was widespread and could exceed $1 million, not including the thousands of dollars in lost merchandise.
Many merchants and homeowners spent much of Thursday calculating their losses. Those who had earthquake insurance also recorded the damage with photographs before beginning the arduous process of cleaning up.
All along California 62, the high-desert route that crosses the San Andreas Fault as it climbs from Palm Springs toward Twentynine Palms, chatter was of Kim's Coffee Shop. It is a popular, no-frills place where eggs, toast and hash browns set you back $1.95.
Owner Richard Sipos, his wife, Akemi, and son, David, were watching "Star Trek" on TV in their apartment above the restaurant when the earthquake struck.
The two-story, unreinforced masonry building shook violently, knocking over appliances, overturning kitchen cupboards--and instantly transforming David Sipos' bedroom into an open-air veranda by crumbling its exterior wall.
"I told my son: 'You'd better check out your bedroom,' " Richard Sipos said Thursday. "He came back and said: 'I now have a room with a view.' "
At a late afternoon news conference Thursday--momentarily interrupted by a rolling aftershock--local politicians urged residents to think seriously about earthquake preparedness.
But even the local Red Cross was forced to postpone a long-scheduled disaster training session when part of the roof at its meeting hall collapsed.
"This is the wake-up call we've all been waiting for," said Red Cross volunteer Kathleen Radnich. "From here on, it's all about self-preservation."
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