After quake, life calms down on both sides of U.S.-Mexico border


Reporting from Mexico City, Mexicali, Mexico, and Pasadena -- Life began returning to a jittery sort of normal Monday on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border, one day after a magnitude 7.2 earthquake rumbled through the area around Mexicali, Mexico.

Assessment teams inspected buildings and cleanup crews swept up broken glass in Mexicali and its smaller California neighbor, Calexico, both of which sustained modest damage. The death toll rose to two, and more than 230 people were injured. The quake, centered about 30 miles south of the border, caused 45 buildings in Baja California to collapse or partly collapse, authorities said.

“Little by little, things are coming back to normal,” said Alejandro Contreras, a spokesman for the state of Baja California in Mexicali, a sprawling municipality of almost 1 million about 125 miles east of San Diego. “People are nervous, of course, but we are calling for calm and working to restore services.”

Mexican President Felipe Calderon visited a hard-hit village near the epicenter late Monday afternoon, touching down in a helicopter to hand out the first bags of food and listen to residents’ complaints.

“Do not be scared,” he told the crowd in Colonia de la Puerta. “We will do everything we can for you.”

As he spoke, convoys of Californians drove past in sport utility vehicles and trucks, heading home from vacation.

On the U.S. side of the border, a 12-square-block historic section of Calexico was closed for inspection and several buildings were red-tagged as unsafe, City Manager Victor M. Carrillo said. Calexico also lost the use of its main water tank, prompting city officials to call for strict conservation.

Carrillo said that damage totaled “millions of dollars” but that it was too early for more precise estimates.

Two people were injured in surrounding Imperial County, one critically, according to Maria Peinado, a spokeswoman for the county Office of Emergency Services. It wasn’t clear how or where they were hurt.

Considering the magnitude of the quake -- it was roughly equivalent to the one that devastated Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in January, causing more than 200,000 deaths -- the region seemed to have emerged surprisingly intact.

At a news conference in Pasadena, Caltech seismologist Kate Hutton said the population near the epicenter was not nearly as dense as in Haiti, partly explaining why there were fewer casualties. She also noted that Haiti had substandard structures and no building code enforcement.

Hutton said the earthquake in Mexico, which struck at 3:40 p.m. Sunday, probably occurred between five and 10 miles below the surface. It was followed by hundreds of smaller aftershocks, she said. Over the next week, she added, there might be as many as 22 aftershocks of magnitude 4 and perhaps two of magnitude 5.

“People who live near [the epicenter] are getting no sleep,” she said.

That was certainly the case in Mexicali, where thousands slept outside Sunday night. Authorities were setting up temporary shelters, especially in rural areas where the quake ruptured irrigation canals, leading to extensive flooding.

Mexicali is a major farming center, and irrigation is essential to the industry.

“There is a bit of a psychosis. People are scared, especially with all the aftershocks,” Contreras said. “We’re urging everyone not to panic, to know that help is being provided.”

Authorities in Mexico stressed that reservoirs were safe and there was no danger that Mexicali or Tijuana would run out of water. Officials said electrical power had been restored to most customers in Mexicali.

Farmers in villages close to the epicenter discovered widespread damage to their homes, schools and churches Monday.

The temblor ripped jagged fissures throughout the rural area, about 25 miles southeast of Mexicali. Walls and roofs of many homes and other structures were badly cracked. Water, sewage and power services were not working, and the two-lane road connecting the area to Mexicali was impassable at several places where the earthquake had torn the pavement apart.

The quake also pushed up water from below the earth’s surface, leaving the area a flooded, muddy mess. Many homes and schools were rendered bogs, while the landscape took on the look of a checkerboard with huge pools of water separated by dry patches.

Jorge Alcaraz, 54, lives in Moreno Valley but was visiting family in Nayarit, the village of his childhood. Surveying his brother’s home, which was all but destroyed, Alcaraz shook his head as he compared the quake with others the area has experienced. “This is different,” he said. “This is very, very different.”

One man died in the collapse of a house, authorities said, and another man, 94, was killed by falling debris.

Among the buildings severely damaged in Mexicali was the general hospital. Baja California Gov. Jose Guadalupe Osuna Millan said patients were being treated in tents while inspectors moved through the city to survey damage.

“Little by little the calm is returning,” Osuna said.

In Calexico, Carrillo said it would be 60 to 90 days before his city’s 10-million-gallon water tank was returned to operation, leaving the city reliant on a secondary 4-million-gallon tank.

The border station in downtown Calexico was closed to vehicles, with only pedestrians allowed to cross. Auto and truck traffic was being diverted to a newer port of entry six miles east.

Some of the worst damage was in Colonia de la Puerta, the poor Mexican farming village Calderon visited. Hundreds of adobe or brick homes collapsed, while others in the area were flooded by the broken irrigation canals. Hundreds of people lined up Monday as the Baja government set up a relief center to distribute blankets, food and water.

“This is a seismic area, so we try to be prepared,” said Marco Antonio, Baja’s undersecretary for public security. “But this was bigger than we anticipated. We’re doing our best to put things together.”

Maria del Carmen, 21, arrived at the center with her family after walking seven miles from their home.

“We have nothing,” she said. “We have no water for our family. We need help.”

Evelyn Evangelista, 43, said her family’s tortilla factory was heavily damaged. The roof collapsed and there was no electricity or water.

“This shop was our whole life,” she said. “But at least our family survived.”

Times staff writers Mitchell Landsberg and Patrick McDonnell in Los Angeles contributed to this report.