Crews rush to fix roads, utilities after California quakes

Steve Latham surveys the effects of Friday’s magnitude 7.1 earthquake, along State Route 178 between Ridgecrest and Trona, California. (TNS photo)

RIDGECREST, Calif. — Officials in two damaged desert communities worked Sunday to repair roads and restore utilities following the largest earthquake in Southern California in nearly two decades.

Ridgecrest and neighboring Trona were hit hard by the magnitude 7.1 quake that rocked the remote Mojave Desert towns Friday.

Roads in Ridgecrest were in good shape, electricity was back on and the water system was working, said Jed McLaughlin, chief of police for the town of 28,000. Buses planned to run again Monday.

But many in nearby Trona, a gateway for Death Valley, didn’t have water, and crews were still patching up cracked roads in the town of fewer than 2,000 people.

Residents lined up for free water that National Guard soldiers handed out at Trona High School.

“I just picked up a couple cases for me and my dog,” said Jeb Haleman, adding that his home of 40 years otherwise escaped unscathed.

Friday’s quake sparked several house fires, shut off power, snapped gas lines, cracked buildings and flooded some homes when water lines broke. Officials were still reviewing the damage to buildings.

It came a day after a magnitude 6.4 temblor hit the same patch of the desert Thursday. Officials have voiced concerns about the possibility of major aftershocks in the days and even months to come, though the chances have dwindled.

The U.S. Geological Survey said Sunday there was just a 1% chance of another magnitude 7 or higher earthquake in the next week, and a rising possibility of no magnitude 6 quakes.

No fatalities or major injuries were reported after the larger quake, which jolted an area from Sacramento to Mexico and prompted the evacuation of the Navy’s largest single landholding, Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake. The jolt was centered 11 miles (18 kilometers) from Ridgecrest, a town of 28,000 people.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said Saturday that governments must strengthen alert systems and building codes and that residents should ensure they know how to protect themselves during an earthquake.

“It is a wake-up call for the rest of the state and other parts of the nation, frankly,” Newsom told reporters.

Authorities warned people to be ready for aftershocks and other earthquakes, adding they may not be so lucky next time.

“Any time that we can go through a 7-point earthquake and we do not report a fatality, a major injury, do not suffer structure damage that was significant, I want to say that that was a blessing and a miracle,” Kern County Fire Department spokesman Andrew Freeborn told reporters Sunday.

The damage wasn’t worse largely because of how remote the area is, but Newsom cautioned after touring Ridgecrest that “it’s deceiving, earthquake damage. You don’t notice it at first.”

The Democratic governor estimated the damage at more than $100 million and said President Donald Trump called him to offer federal support for rebuilding.

The Ridgecrest area is sandwiched between more populated areas of Southern California and Clark County, where Las Vegas is located. Seismologists warned that it could see up to 30,000 aftershocks over the next six months, though many of those will be too small for people to notice.

April Hamlin said she was “already on edge” when the second quake rattled her Ridgecrest home. She and her three kids initially thought it was another aftershock.

“But it just kept on intensifying,” Hamlin said. “The TV went over, hanging by the cord. We heard it break. We heard glass breakage in the other rooms, but all we could do was stay where we were until it stopped.”

With the possibility of aftershocks and temperatures expected to reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) over the next several days, officials were taking precautions.

The California National Guard sent 200 troops, logistical support and aircraft, Maj. Gen. David Baldwin said. The Pentagon had been notified, and the entire California Military Department was on alert, he said.

Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake said on Facebook that nonessential workers were evacuated and operations halted. The epicenters of both quakes were on the base, and officials said they were assessing damage.

Officials said most employees live off the base and in Ridgecrest, but they authorized the evacuation so those who live on base can be eligible for reimbursements.

The California Office of Emergency Services brought in cots, water and meals and set up cooling centers in the region, Director Mark Ghilarducci said.

Highway officials shut down a 30-mile (48-kilometer) section of State Route 178 between Ridgecrest and Trona. Crews worked through the night to patch the roadway, but it remained rough and uneven, California Department of Transportation spokeswoman Christine Knadler said.

The Ridgecrest said police chief said there was “nothing but minor injuries such as cuts and bruises, by the grace of God.” Two building fires — one involving a mobile home — were quickly doused, McLaughlin said, and natural gas lines where leaks were reported were shut off.

In Trona, fire officials said up to 50 structures were damaged.

Julia Doss, who maintains the Trona Neighborhood Watch page on Facebook, said the only food store in town is a Family Dollar store that was shuttered Saturday.

“The only way to get food is to drive to Ridgecrest, and with only three gas stations in town, I’m worried we may soon run out of fuel,” Doss said.

Friday’s quake probably ruptured along about 25 miles (40 kilometers) of fault line and was part of a continuing sequence, said Lucy Jones, a seismologist at the California Institute of Technology and a former science adviser at the U.S. Geological Survey.

The seismic activity is unlikely to affect fault lines outside the area, Jones said, noting that the gigantic San Andreas Fault is far away.

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