Baja California’s 7.2 quake prompts an exodus

The U.S.-Mexico border reopened Tuesday to northbound vehicle traffic, but Calexico’s historic downtown district remained closed as inspectors checked for structural damage to buildings in the wake of the magnitude 7.2 earthquake just south of here Easter Sunday.

The border crossing had been closed to northbound traffic as officials checked for damage to the federal building, but pedestrians continued to cross through the checkpoint from Mexicali as they fled the aftershocks rocking northern Baja California.

Another entry point east of Calexico reserved for commercial traffic remained open but with huge backups.

Many people were headed to the Greyhound bus station, and taxis swarmed the area in the hopes of picking up passengers bound for points north and west.

Mexicali resident Hilda Gonzales waited at the Calexico bus station with her three children.

“I won’t feel safe until I can get to my sister’s house in Los Angeles,” Gonzales said. “Maybe I will never come back to Mexicali.”

The Salvation Army set up a storefront at the border in Calexico and handed out cookies, water and coffee to entering visitors.

The U.S. Border Patrol resumed its regular routine, but the Calexico Police Department remained on extra deployment downtown as yellow police tape kept people away from red-tagged buildings.

There were no signs of looting or problems associated with the refugees from Mexicali, said Lt. J.J. Serrano.

“Everyone seems to be on their best manners,” he said. “They know everybody is stressed out by this.”

Looking around at the quiet, abandoned buildings, he said: “It looks like a movie set, doesn’t it? Maybe they’ll do a movie about Calexico.”

The future of the historic De Anza Hotel remains in doubt because of damage sustained in the quake.

Built in 1931, the three-story hotel once was a favorite spot for Southern California business barons and the Hollywood set when they visited the desert and Baja California.

In recent years, the hotel has had financial problems and a series of owners. It is now being operated as a living space for low-income elderly people.

About 110 residents were evacuated Sunday night when cracks appeared in the hotel ceiling, plaster fell to the floor and the statuary outside fell off pedestals.

The city of Calexico’s development director, Armando Villa, said that although the hotel is grandfathered in as an unreinforced masonry structure exempt from certain building codes, there are limits.

“What concerns us now is we’re seeing a lot of stress marks that may or may not have to do with the structural integrity of the building,” he said.

Meanwhile, there have been more than 500 aftershocks since Sunday’s earthquake, and experts said residents in the region can expect many more.

Most of the aftershocks have been minor -- magnitude 3 or less. But there have been six aftershocks that registered more than magnitude 5.0, and dozens in the 4 range, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The death toll from the quake remained at two; 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.

Businesses in downtown Mexicali were starting to reopen Tuesday as power was restored to about 90% of the city for the first time since Sunday. Overall, the city of 1 million-plus appeared to be slowly returning to normal.

“Mexicali’s been through a lot,” said Eloisa Ramirez, 37, who was shopping downtown. “We’ll get through this.”