Residents of Ridgecrest and other communities began focusing on recovery after the largest earthquake in nearly two decades struck, but that proved difficult as a series of powerful aftershocks strained nerves and brought sleepless nights.
The town of 29,000 was already on high alert after a 6.4 magnitude earthquake upended their Fourth of July celebrations. Then in Friday’s predawn hours, a magnitude 5.4 temblor struck near the epicenter. It was felt as far away as Laguna Hills, San Bernardino, Fresno and Las Vegas. By Friday afternoon, there had been at least 17 magnitude 4 aftershocks, and at least 1,200 total quakes.
Jamil Osmani, 38, and Abdul Hugais, 32, and their families resorted to camping at a park next to City Hall on Thursday evening, preferring the open sky over the roof of their homes.
“We got tired of running out of our house,” Osmani said.
The aftershock sequence was slowing with time, said Caltech seismologist Egill Hauksson said. But he warned that the aftershock sequence would last months, if not years. On Friday, scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and Caltech said there was still a 6% chance of an aftershock of magnitude 6 or greater.
It was a day of progress and heartbreak in Ridgecrest. Workers cleaned up stores littered with debris from falling merchandise, and volunteers tended to books that fell off shelves at the library. The quake brought intense shaking to the area, causing some damage to homes and businesses but no major casualties.
Bill Sturgeon, 79, sat alone at his kitchen table on Friday surveying the damage to the Trousdale Estates mobile home he shared with his wife, Charlotte, for 20 years. The earthquake had picked up the couple’s home and slammed it back to the ground, knocking it off its foundation..
“That hutch there held 40 years worth of knickknacks promised to our grandchildren,” he said, pointing to a pile of shattered glass and broken planks of wood that lay on the warped floor. A red-tag notice plastered in the window blared the warning from county officials that the home was no longer safe to occupy.
The Sturgeons were at a Fourth of July event at a local high school when the shaking began. The venue was evacuated and when they returned home, their granddaughter met them to deliver the devastating news.
“As I pulled onto the street, my granddaughter was there and she said ‘Grandma, I have bad news for you. Your house is gone. It’s totaled,’” Charlotte Sturgeon, 78, said, her voice breaking. “I thought she was teasing. I said ‘Oh no, no.’ But she was right.”
The continuous movement has left area residents uneasy. Shallice, a 32-year-old mother of five who did not want to give her last name, said her children scream at the sound of a car exhaust.
“We’re definitely jumpy,” she said.
In the nearby Searles Valley community of Trona, where a giant crack had formed on the outskirts of town across Highway 178, businesses were still recovering.
Roger Sandoval, the owner of a Shell gas station, estimates that his store suffered about $5,000 in damages, but said he had no earthquake insurance. A power outage took down the store’s coolers, computers and fuel pumps.
Sandoval remained open, but was able to accept only cash payments for goods.
“It’s just one of those things that you expect in California,” Sandoval said. “Actually, I was just wondering about [earthquakes] the other day. We hadn’t had one in quite a long time.”
“Well, here you go,” a customer interjected. The two laughed.
A pretty much spotless Walmart, the morning after Ridgecrest earthquake that left the store a mess. The alcohol isle was the worst, with broken bottles and liquor all over the floor, an employee tells me. Now, everything is neatly in its place, the bottles pushed back in shelves. pic.twitter.com/fkpu0cBuuR— Alejandra Reyes-Velarde (@r_valejandra) July 5, 2019
Just a few hours after Friday’s jolt, businesses were slowly coming to life in Ridgecrest as people began arriving at stores to grab emergency supplies.
Employees inside the Walmart Supercenter had worked through the night, clearing spilled products from the aisles following the previous day’s quake. They had gathered shortly after 4 a.m. to discuss the day’s plans when the shaking started again. They froze, ready to run outside, but the rumbling quickly subsided.
“They were panicking,” said store employee Jeremiah Jones, 40. “Just imagine, you just cleaned it all up. Here we go again. That’s a pain.”
Unlike a day earlier, items stayed on the shelves, and no major cleanup was necessary.
Jones had been placing heavy packages of onions on a top shelf inside the store’s produce storage room when the first quake hit Thursday. His colleague, who was standing nearby, was jostled, so Jones grabbed her and pulled her toward the ground.
“I actually saved her,” he said. “She was getting thrown around like doll.”
When the quake hit, Jones said all the customers ran out, and employees were left to assess the damage. Aisles were left in disarray, making it impossible to walk between them.
But on Friday morning, the Walmart was spotless, all evidence of the quake gone. Employees had started cleanup work Thursday afternoon.
“Oh my God, it was a disaster,” Jones said. “I never thought they would have got it done by today. Every aisle had stuff thrown off the shelves.”
Jones said he got little sleep throughout the night, anxious as the aftershocks continued. When the strongest hit at early Friday, Walmart employees were having a meeting.
“People were getting ready to run out of the store,” he said.
At the Ridgecrest Branch Library, the floor was littered with books that had fallen from their shelves. Staff members arrived Friday morning to check for damage and volunteers of all ages showed up to help after the library requested assistance.
“There has been an outpouring of people wanting to help. All the way from San Diego, I’ve gotten people wanting to volunteer and come up here,” said Shalyn Pineda, the East Kern Regional Library supervisor. “It’s a really beautiful thing.”
The staff hopes the library will be re-open to the public by Saturday morning. Whether or not it does, the library still plans to offer its free lunch program for kids under 18.
“Especially after this shakeup, maybe a little bit of normalcy will help,” Pineda said.
Diaz and Reyes-Velarde reported from Ridgecrest. Shalby reported from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.