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Sierra Madre Shows It Learned From Experience


Some of the most confident people who rode out Monday's earthquake could be found in Sierra Madre, where a disastrous 1991 temblor led to a widespread retrofitting movement.

In June, 1991, the 5.8-magnitude Sierra Madre earthquake damaged more than 400 structures in that city alone, and 22 houses were eventually razed. While some structures still sit condemned, many residents finished rebuilding as recently as several months ago, and a host of businesses just completed seismic strengthening.

Still, this week's quake left its imprint among Sierra Madre residents, if only psychologically. The temblor brought back some of the 1991 terror for Gretchen and Don Kelly, but they had consoling thoughts as they clung to each other and waited for the violent rocking to end.

The 1991 earthquake ripped open their home of 25 years on South Sunnyside Avenue, sending their chimney flying across the living room into Don's favorite chair and cracking the outer walls. They rebuilt from the ground up with seismic safety in mind, exceeding code requirements.

Don Kelly supervised the construction, relying heavily on a book called "Peace of Mind in Earthquake Country." After two years of rebuilding, the couple moved into their fortified home last summer. They completed their landscaping in early December.

"We built this one hell for stout," Kelly said. "We have gone over it very carefully, and there's one tiny six-inch crack over a doorway, and no broken dishes. We are very pleased."

Fear is a bit harder to overcome.

"It is difficult emotionally. It sort of plunges you back into the nightmare," said Gretchen Kelly. "We put in extra money to make it an earthquake-proof house, but I was still scared to go downstairs."

Monday's earthquake did little more than cosmetic damage in Sierra Madre, sending more than 100 bottles crashing to the ground in a liquor store, loosening tiles, and popping nails out of Sheetrock.

The 1991 quake spread its wrath over a string of West San Gabriel Valley cities, doing more than $50 million in damage, and killing a San Dimas woman at Santa Anita Racetrack.

In Sierra Madre, signs of the damage persist: A graceful Spanish-style home sits ringed by chain-link fencing, its front door boarded up and windows shattered. Huge cracks scar its face. To the south, a pretty pink and blue Victorian house is finally home again to its owners after recovery from earthquake damage.

And at the Sierra Madre Congregational Church, Minister of Administration Kenneth Cromeenes breathed a sigh of relief Monday to find only cosmetic cracks and slight damage to the round stained-glass windows in the sanctuary. In 1991, before the church had completed $300,000 worth of rebuilding and retrofitting, the bell tower collapsed along with a wall.

The city has attempted to enforce state-mandated retrofitting requirements for businesses, but some have been slow in completing the costly work. The deadline was extended from July to December and then again to Jan. 29.

Monday's earthquake "kind of emphasizes the importance of getting (retrofitting) done," said Councilman George Maurer, who manages The Only Place in Town restaurant, which finished retrofitting just a month ago.

Vito Corazzelli, who owns K.C.'s Closet on Baldwin Avenue, finished retrofitting a week before Christmas. In 1991, the antique and secondhand clothing store suffered cracked walls. This time, it came through with just a few broken items.

Roger Munn, 67, whose house lost its back room in 1991, said his wife, Gloria, found Monday morning a little hard to take.

"Since the Sierra Madre earthquake, she's a lot more jumpy about things that shake."

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