N. California dodges major damage in 6.5 quake

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EUREKA, Calif. (AP) — 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 broken glass.

Entrances to Eureka’s Bayshore Mall were blocked 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.

“We’re very, very fortunate that it’s not worse, but there is a lot of damage,” Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., said in a Eureka press conference. “This is a big deal.”

Still, the Saturday afternoon temblor — centered in the Pacific about 22 miles west of Ferndale — caused only limited structural damage and a few hours of power outage. There were no major injuries, other than an elderly resident’s fracture hip.

A preliminary estimate of damage in Eureka came to $12.5 million, said the city’s fire chief, Eric Smith. No countywide assessment was available.

Agencies and residents were earthquake-ready, with plans in place and awareness of safety measures such as not hanging heavy things on walls. That helped avert destruction and panic, and sped along the recovery, officials said.

“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 — also 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.

An earthquake analyst with the U.S. Geological Survey said that while earthquakes cannot be predicted, a series will generally start with the largest tremor, then taper off in size and frequency. Several aftershocks struck the region overnight, some with magnitude as high as 4.1. None have been reported since early Sunday.

“Almost always we see this pattern where they taper off,” said Don Blakeman, with the USGS. This quake happened at the intersection of three plates — the Pacific, the North American and the Gorda.

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, about 150 people were 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 36,000 customers initially, but a quick response restored electricity to all by early Sunday, said Janna Morris, a spokeswoman for Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

The utility company was surveying gas lines by helicopter and on foot. Ten problems with gas pipes were reported; by Sunday afternoon, two had been repaired, and crews were working on the rest, said Morris. The company’s former nuclear power plant outside Eureka suffered no damage.

“Our crews worked very quickly,” said PG&E spokesman David Eisenhauer. “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 found no significant damage 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 2 of approach ramps, he said.

Emergency room doctors at Eureka’s St. Joseph Hospital stayed busy Saturday night. About 27 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 the aftershocks that rumbled through the region for several hours.

In the city’s historic downtown, two lanes of traffic were blocked where a brick-and-mortar building sustained some damage. An entire block was closed to traffic in front of the Eureka theater, where the four-story 1930s Art Deco marquee was visibly cracked and tilted toward the street. Bricks from the upper floor of another building came through the roof of a garage below it, crushing a car.

Elsewhere, a wood-frame house in a residential area shifted off its foundation and dropped into the crawl space below, splintering the stairs leading to the front porch. A window broken in the quake was boarded up.

The only evacuations were of this single-family home and an apartment complex that housed 14 people. The Red Cross did not need to open a shelter; the residents went to local hotels.

A hazmat team responded to the Eureka campus of College of the Redwoods, where chemicals in a lab spilled from a shelf and mixed on the floor.

“We don’t believe it’s a serious incident, but we don’t take any chances,” said Smith.

At Bayshore Mall, the shaking loosened some ceiling tiles, broke shop windows and lights, and knocked about merchandise. Engineers also 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 at the facility, but initial inspections revealed no 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, Metheny said.

As in much of the town, he said, the mall suffered “a lot of minor damage — pervasive but minor.”


Associated Press writer Juliana Barbassa, in San Francisco, contributed to this report.