Saturday morning, Jamie Acevedo, 42, sat outside her home in Trona, California with son Jeremy Chute, 17, and daughter Sammy Chute, 15, their dogs, Misha and Petey, and their cats, Aries and Kiki. They're sitting outside the wreckage of their home, preparing to move because as their town bore the brunt of a two-fisted earthquake last week, it destroyed their home and knocked it off its foundation.
First, on the Fourth of July, a 6.4 magnitude quake hit the town, then a giant 7.1 magnitude blow on Friday night, with many large aftershocks in between.
Rockslides closed roads, isolating the town, population about 1,500. Power was lost, then restored by emergency support. Drinking water was lost and is being trucked in as temperatures hover in the 90s. But, most of all, homes were lost.
Officials cautioned residents not to spend prolonged time sleeping outside in the desert without water or air conditioning and urged families to keep supplied with water, food and fuel.
Even before the devastating quake, Trona was appeared to be desperately clinging to life, reliant on a single processing plant, Searles Valley Minerals, which manufactures products such as soda ash and borax. Over one hundred years old, the plant is still the reason the town exists. In the aftermath of the quake, the facility’s condition has not yet been disclosed. When approached, security at the plant refused to provide comment.
It has been two decades since Searles Valley residents felt an earthquake of this size. A magnitude 5.8 quake rocked Ridgecrest, home to about 30,000 people, in 1995. A 7.1 quake struck about 100 miles to the southeast in 1999.
The high desert area once saw so much seismic activity that it was labelled the earthquake capital of the world, said Caltech seismologist Egill Hauksson.
“This area is quite active, and has been quite active since we’ve had records,” Hauksson told reporters.
Officials also warned that the two earthquakes in rapid succession could make homes more prone to collapse in aftershocks. The first aftershock from the Friday quake registered as a magnitude 5.5.
“Maybe it’s not a 7.1 next time, maybe it’s lower — and with that, there could be more damage because structures are weakened,” advised Kern County Fire Chief, David Witt, at a Saturday morning news conference. “We need to be vigilant.”
The quake caused damage to a U.S. weapons testing facility outside Ridgecrest, the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, although details were sparse early Saturday. The 1.1-million-acre facility is the Navy’s largest, covering an area larger than Rhode Island.
The facility is “not mission capable until further notice,” the naval base reported on its Facebook page. However, officials said, security protocols “remain in effect.”
Caltech seismologist Lucy Jones said she could not recall a pattern of earthquakes in California in which a 6.4 foreshock was followed by a 7.1 event, only to be followed by an even bigger quake. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen, she cautioned.
“It is clearly a very energetic sequence, so there’s no reason to think we can’t have more large earthquakes,” she said.
Ridgecrest Mayor Peggy Breeden spoke out to encourage residents to take precautions over the coming days, until the seismic activity has subsided. She said the town shouldn’t suffer any long-term consequences from the last several days and she doesn’t believe residents will flee to other cities.
“We’re used to this,” she told a news conference. “We live in the earthquake capital of the world, so I’m told. Our people are strong.”
The effects of the quake are, however, still being felt by residents. At the Trousdale Estates mobile home park in Ridgecrest, resident Lori Churchill said she was wearing the same blue nightgown she had worn for two days and hadn’t slept more than a few hours here and there. Her mobile home had not been jarred from its foundation, but she worried what would happen if another quake hit.
“I’m walking around kind of like a zombie,” she said.
Gov. Gavin Newsom and other officials stopped by the mobile home park Saturday afternoon to assess the damage. Newsom asked Churchill and her companions where they would sleep that night.
“I don’t know,” she said.
Newsom mentioned the Red Cross shelter nearby. Churchill knew of the shelter but had not gone to it for fear it might collapse too.
“They’re waiting for this other earthquake to come,” she said. “If it comes, what does it matter if you’re at the Red Cross.”