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'Back To Some Normal Way Of Life': Mojave Communities Begin Recovery After Damaging Earthquakes

U.S. Geological Survey
Cracks from slip along the ruptured fault had closed Highway 178 between Ridgecrest and Trona until Saturday July 6. CalTrans has temporarily repaired and reopened the highway, though more permanent fixes will be needed in the long run.

When the first big earthquake hit, a magnitude-6.4 on Thursday morning, Ridgecrest resident Heather Martin said so many of her belongings fell in front of her bedroom door that all she could do was crouch in a corner and wait for the shaking to stop.

When the magnitude-7.1 quake struck the next night, Martin knew she had to get out of her apartment. Each doorway was another hurdle to pass through. “My back slammed into the doorframe,” she says, as she passed the bathroom, “and I had such an adrenaline rush at that point that I didn’t even realize I had hurt my back.”

Martin says her brother, in a manufactured home in a different part of town, broke his ankle. Otherwise, she says their family is fine, and she doesn’t think their homes sustained major damage.

The first few days following the quakes were chaotic, as the city of 29,000 and nearby communities grappled with house fires, blackouts, road closures and an inundated 911 system. Governor Gavin Newsom, who toured the areas and spoke during a press conference from Ridgecrest on Saturday, declared a State of Emergency in Kern and San Bernardino Counties and requested aid from the federal government.

But in a town hall meeting on Sunday night, Ridgecrest Police Chief Jed McLaughlin said the city is now transitioning from reaction to recovery. “So now it’s our job to not only protect you, but to help you get back to some normal way of life,” he said to a packed hall of roughly 200 people.

Credit Ridgecrest Police Department
On Sunday night, hundreds of Ridgecrest- and Trona-area residents gathered for a town hall in Ridgecrest with an update on infrastructure, emergency services and health care.

McLaughlin was in high spirits during the meeting, cracking jokes about a colleague, a malfunctioning microphone, and the fact that many residents had slept outside for fear of more quakes. “I’m glad that you thought it was safe to be able to sleep out in your front yard, sleep in your car,” he said. “But now I need you to get back in your house, okay?” Audience members laughed.

The police chief had good news to share: Most roads in the area have been reopened, electricity has been restored, and Ridgecrest Regional Hospital is now operational, after partially closing due to a water-related issue and transferring at least 10 patients elsewhere. Aftershocks have slowed, though over the next week, the U.S. Geological Survey predicts the area will continue rumbling from dozens to hundreds of small aftershocks, some of which will be strong enough to be felt.

Moving forward may not be easy. The city anticipates so many reports of property damage it’s set up a dedicated email address and hotline to handle them. And McLaughlin emphasized the need for residents to care for their needs and take their mental health seriously.

Credit U.S. Geological Survey
As of Sunday, July 7, the desert region of Kern, Inyo and San Bernardino Counties had experienced 1395 earthquakes greater than magnitude 2.5. Thousands of smaller tremors had also shaken the region, though they would have been too small feel.

Nearby communities, however, remain a few steps behind Ridgecrest. China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station evacuated its staff down to only personnel who are mission capable. Residents of the unincorporated community of Trona, which had been inaccessible until Saturday thanks to road damage along highway 178, are still being advised to boil their tap water.

At the town hall, San Bernardino County spokesman David Wert pledged to help the community with whatever it needs, beginning with access to the Red Cross emergency shelter 24 miles away in Ridgecrest. “Starting tomorrow, we have arranged for daily free transportation for those of you who can’t get here easily and don’t have friends who can take you,” he said to applause.

Red Cross spokeswoman Nicole Maul estimates around 150 Ridgecrest-area residents are taking advantage of its emergency shelter at 100 West California Ave., which has the capacity for up to 350 more. Maul also says Red Cross vans are delivering food and water as well as cleanup kits to residents in need. “In those kits folks will be able to get a broom, mop, gloves, and other essential cleanup items as they begin to assess the damage and really begin that recovery process," she says.

Ridgecrest city officials have set up a dedicated email and phone hotline for residents to report property damage or request an inspection: quakedamage@ridgecrest-ca.com, or 760-499-5083. Kern County officials also encourage residents to sign up for emergency alerts through readykern.com.

In nearby Trona, San Bernardino County officials invite residents to report damage to the county’s Emergency Operations Center by calling 909-356-3998.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.