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Buildings, nerves under stress in border region a week after quake

As California and Mexican officials work to assess harm to infrastructure, a series of 'robust' aftershocks have added to emotional turmoil in the area hit hardest by the 7.2 earthquake.

April 12, 2010|By Tony Perry

Reporting from the Calexico-Mexicali region — Residents and public officials on both sides of the border were assessing damage and looking to repair shattered nerves Sunday amid aftershocks from the magnitude 7.2 earthquake that struck on Easter, the strongest to hit the region in more than a century.

In the California city of Calexico, most of the city's downtown business district remains closed as structural engineers decide whether the aging buildings can be saved. A squad from the Federal Emergency Management Agency is expected this week.

Public schools will be closed all week as officials devise alternate plans for 800 students from Jefferson Elementary School, which is considered too badly damaged for use. Two Catholic schools will be closed for two days.

Water systems in El Centro, Holtville, Imperial and Calexico, all in Imperial County, will need repairs, officials said. In Calexico, residents have been told to reduce their water usage.

The quake, which struck at 3:40 p.m. April 4, had its epicenter south of Mexicali, Mexico, near the village of Guadalupe Victoria.

The quake was followed by what seismologists at the Southern California Seismic Network, a collaborative project of Caltech and the U.S. Geological Survey, labeled a "robust" sequence of aftershocks.

On Sunday, four quakes measuring above magnitude 4.0 struck in a three-hour period, doing little physical damage but contributing to the emotional turmoil of the region.

"When will it end?" said Miguel Centavo, 43, a farm laborer who travels each day from Mexicali to work the fields of the Imperial Valley.

Damage in Southern California is estimated potentially in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and an Imperial Valley man injured in the initial quake remained hospitalized in critical condition.

In Baja California, government officials say 5,200 homes were damaged. Many residents are sleeping in tents, at the homes of friends and relatives or under the stars; some have fled north, catching the Greyhound bus in Calexico to Los Angeles.

In the villages about 25 miles south of the border, homes' walls and foundations were split. Water bubbled up from underground, flooding some homes. Several churches and more than 50 miles of roads were damaged.

Two people were killed. Dozens were injured and others escaped seemingly by luck.

Virginia Rodriguez Felix and her daughter and husband were sitting outside their adobe and cinder-block home in the Mexican farming community of Colonia de la Puerta when the quake struck.

"Our whole house fell," said Rodriguez Felix, 52. "Thank God, we're still alive."

Family-owned businesses were damaged or destroyed.

"This was our whole life, but at least our family is OK," Evelyn Evangelista, 23, said as she surveyed the ruins of their tortilla-making business.

Like many business owners and homeowners in the area, Evangelista's family has no insurance.

Initially, Mexican authorities said they had emergency plans that could handle the needs of residents. An ad hoc distribution center for blankets, water and food was established within 24 hours of the quake. President Felipe Calderon arrived by helicopter to tell the newly homeless to be brave and that their government would help them.

Calderon heard pleas from residents who had slept in their cars and tents. "We need everything," said Maria del Carmen, 21, who had walked several miles in hopes of getting water.

In Imperial Valley, nine county government buildings were damaged. In Mexicali, a sprawling city of more than 1 million people, the public hospital was evacuated and a parking garage under construction collapsed.

By week's end, the Baja California government and Mexicali Red Cross had appealed to private businesses and California for help. California officials have responded with emergency supplies, including 3,500 cots, 7,000 blankets, 3,300 pillows, 4,000 hygiene kits and 44 generators.

A magnitude 5.1 temblor Thursday led officials to expand off-limit areas in Calexico.

Even as officials and media conducted an assessment of the downtown, an aftershock collapsed the roof of an adult bookstore and cracked the walls and foundations of nearby buildings.

"Things have gotten worse," Hildy Carrillo, executive director of the Calexico Chamber of Commerce, said Friday. "Roofs and walls that were hanging by a thread after Sunday are coming down."

Dozens of single-family homes and trailers untouched by the initial quake have been rendered at least temporarily unusable by aftershocks and require follow-up inspections.

Calexico's historic De Anza Hotel, which had been converted to provide housing for low-income senior citizens, remains closed while engineers inspect the damage.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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