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After the Shaking : Southeast Cities Rattled by Quake but Spared Heavy Damage


Pat Fitzgerald had planned to close his surf shop in downtown Whittier at the end of the month. Business wasn't all that good, he said.

But on Monday, a 6.6-magnitude earthquake pushed up Fitzgerald's closing date. The temblor buckled an exterior brick wall at Fitzgerald's store and shattered the front windows. And when he arrived to inspect the damage, he found the shop had been looted.

"It's just my luck," Fitzgerald said as workers removed the few surfboards and skating gear that remained. He had moved his shop from Monrovia to Whittier after the Sierra Madre quake two years ago.

While quake damage was perhaps most visible in Whittier, the temblor made its mark on other cities in the Southeast and Long Beach areas.

In Downey, the quake set off a sprinkler system that flooded the Robinsons-May store in the Stonewood Center, said Larry Norton, mall general manager. The store was cleaned and reopened Tuesday.

In Compton, a post office branch at 701 Santa Fe Ave. lost power and was closed Tuesday. A spokesman said mail delivery was suspended and customers were directed to other branches. The post office reopened Wednesday.

Scattered power outages were reported in residential neighborhoods in Lakewood and Compton, but power had been restored in most areas by late Tuesday, utility officials said.

Police and fire crews throughout the area responded to hundreds of reports of broken pipes, leaking gas and minor fires. Hospitals tried to cope with the overflow of patients from other facilities.

Administrators at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Long Beach scrambled to find beds for 89 patients who were transferred from a quake-ravaged veteran's hospital in Sepulveda. Long Beach Memorial Medical Center admitted two children from a pediatrics intensive care ward at Northridge Hospital Medical Center, which was severely damaged.

Hospital emergency rooms were also jammed with patients, including mothers frightened into early labor and others cut and bruised by flying glass and falling objects. A paramedic was treated at St. Mary Medical Center after his arm was crushed by elevator doors at the Long Beach Naval Station, a spokeswoman said.

Public schools were closed Monday for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Although they were open Tuesday, some parents chose to keep their children at home.

Officials in Norwalk-La Mirada, Lynwood and Montebello school districts said some classrooms were sparsely attended.

Compton officials said only 25% of the district's 28,000 students went to school Tuesday. They attributed the low attendance to erroneous news reports that classes had been canceled. "We sent substitute teachers to schools, and they were being sent back because there were no students," district spokeswoman Arianna Barrios said.

Soon after the quake, cities deployed teams of building inspectors to examine structures most prone to damage.

In Long Beach, inspectors found only three buildings with superficial cracks, said Eugene Zeller, superintendent of building and safety. Nevertheless, the city is pressing ahead with its earthquake safety program, officials said.

The program targets 565 structures that lack reinforced masonry and others prone to collapse. Of that number, 437 have been strengthened since 1991, leaving 128 buildings that must still be reinforced within the next year, said Ken Kayashtha, a civil engineer overseeing the program.

The buildings are the survivors of the 1933 Long Beach earthquake that shook apart many unreinforced structures and killed 115 people. The disaster prompted state officials to begin upgrading California's building codes. As a result, buildings constructed since 1934 have been more resistant to quake damage.

In Whittier, city administrators and public works crews discovered a crumbling brick wall and a loose facade in the heart of the Uptown district, which is the downtown area. But storefronts had been spared heavy damage.

"Considering what they had in San Fernando, we fared better than OK," City Manager Tom Mauk said.

He said the city learned its lesson after a 5.9-magnitude quake rolled through town on Oct. 1, 1987, and caused about $90 million in damage. It destroyed 34 buildings and damaged 23 others. About half of the historic downtown district had to be razed.

At least 17 structures have been reinforced since 1988, when the city adopted an ordinance that gave property owners seven years to make buildings quake-resistant.

Businessman Lane Langford said many merchants took advantage of low-interest loans to prepare for future devastation.

Three years ago, Langford reinforced his own one-story building, which houses the Bookland bookstore on Greenleaf Avenue. But Langford said he was was still frightened early Monday when he felt his house in Whittier bucking.

"I felt it was more fierce than the one in 1987. I was worried," Langford said. "I fully expected to go to Uptown Whittier and see my whole life destroyed."

Langford saw hundreds of scattered books, but there were no cracks in the walls. "I really felt like I wanted to start crying with relief," he said.

About 4 p.m., a dozen hours after the first quake struck, Whittier business owners were still replacing broken panes of glass on their storefronts when a 5.5-magnitude aftershock hit. Rattled merchants and customers rushed into the street.

Pedro Hernandez, co-owner of the Uptown Mexican Cafe, said he had no qualms about staying in Whittier, however.

"Anywhere you go, you don't know when earthquakes are going to happen," said Hernandez, who had to replace the front window. "We have to continue to rebuild."

Times staff writer Rick Holguin and correspondents Emily Adams and John Pope contributed to this story.

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