Published January 10, 2010
FRESNO, California – Residents of a Northern California county gingerly cleaned up Sunday after the area dodged a catastrophe, escaping a 6.5 magnitude earthquake with little more than bumps, cuts and broke glass.
Eureka's Bayshore Mall had entrances blocked off as engineers surveyed for damage. Area bridges suffered some bent rails, and local stores reported messy aisles where bottles and jars flew from shelves and shattered, authorities said.
But the Saturday afternoon temblor — centered in the Pacific about 22 miles west of Ferndale — caused no major injuries, only limited structural damage and just a few hours where thousands of residents were without power.
"I think we can attribute some of this to being prepared," said Phil Smith-Hanes, Humboldt County spokesman. "Folks in this area are used to living in earthquake country."
The quake's location — offshore, deep under the ocean and away from urban areas — helped the region escape relatively unscathed what could have been a major disaster. A quake of similar size — 6.7 magnitude — killed 72 people and caused $25 billion in damage in 1994 in the Los Angeles area.
Rick Littlefield, owner of Eureka Natural Foods, said earthquakes are "part of the rules of the game up here."
The quake left some of the grocery store's aisles ankle-deep in broken bottles, jars and spilled goods, a loss Littlefield estimated at about $20,000. But the shelves were bolted in place, so they didn't topple. A generator kept power going.
When the temblor hit Saturday afternoon, there were about 150 people shopping, he said.
"A lot of customers freaked," he said Sunday morning. "People just dropped what they had — in the checkstand even. People who were in the middle of a transaction just bailed and left their stuff."
But no one was hurt, and damage was limited to some easy-to-fix cracks on the floor. Littlefield kept his sense of humor as he tried to tackle the sticky mess in the shampoo and juice aisles with a wet/dry vacuum that was soon overflowing with bubbles.
At least, he said, "it smelled really good."
Power outages were widespread, affecting about 25,000 customers initially, but a quick response restored electricity to all by early Sunday morning, said David Eisenhauer, a spokesman for Pacific Gas & Electric Co.
The utility company was surveying gas lines by helicopter and on foot, but no leaks had been reported, Eisenhauer said. The company's former nuclear power plant outside Eureka did not suffer any damage.
"Our crews worked very quickly," he said. "We practice for this type of event, this type of emergency. We have earthquake plans; they were put in place and went very smoothly."
California Department of Transportation crews out surveying roads and bridges, first by flashlight and then in broad daylight, had found no significant damage and no accidents attributed to the quake by Sunday morning, said Stan Woodman, Caltrans maintenance manager for the district encompassing Humboldt county.
Woodman felt the quake at his home in McKinleyville — "It was rocking and rolling," he said. But the only consequences for transportation infrastructure have been some bent rails on bridges and slight settling by an inch or two of approach ramps, he said.
Emergency room doctors at Eureka's St. Joseph Hospital stayed busy Saturday night. Several people showed up with cuts and bruises, with the most serious injury being to an elderly patient who fell and broke a hip, said Laurie Watson-Stone, a spokeswoman for the 146-bed hospital.
But no major injuries were reported overnight, in spite of several aftershocks that rumbled through the region for several hours, some with magnitude as high as 4.5.
Two lanes of traffic were blocked downtown, where a brick-and-mortar building sustained some damage, but no debris spilled into the street. An entire block was closed to traffic in front of the Eureka theater, where the four-story tall 1930s Art Deco marquee is visibly cracked and tilted toward the street.
The worst destruction reported by Sunday was to a wood-frame house in a residential sector of the city. The light green home shifted off its foundation and collapsed into the crawl space below, splintering the stairs leading to the front porch. A window broken in the quake was boarded up.
At Bayshore Mall, where the shaking loosened some ceiling tiles, broke shop windows and lights, and knocked merchandise about, engineers were surveying for structural problems, said Mitch Metheny, operations manager for General Growth Properties, which owns the mall.
Sprinklers caused a fair amount of water damage, but initial inspections did not reveal deeper trouble, he said. Tenants likely won't be allowed in until Monday, and the stores will probably remain closed to customers for a few days longer, he said.
As in much of the town, he said, the mall suffered "a lot of minor damage — pervasive but minor."