By Luke Phillips
Easter dinners across the Imperial Valley were interrupted Sunday as a series of powerful earthquakes shook the region.
According to the United States Geological Survey, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck the Imperial Valley at 3:40 p.m. Sunday and was centered 40 miles southeast of Calexico in Guadalupe Victoria, Mexico. USGS estimates that 20 million people felt the quake, which shook buildings in Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, and Las Vegas and was felt as far away as Tucson and Santa Barbara.
According to Imperial County Fire Chief Tony Rouhotas, damage assessments are still being completed, but Calexico and El Centro seem to have been hit the hardest.
“A lot of what’s being done in this room is assessment,” Rouhotas said at a press conference at the Imperial Valley Office of Emergency Service Monday. “We have a lot of assessment crews out in the field right now.”
The Calexico City Council held an emergency meeting Sunday evening and declared a state of emergency in the city. Many buildings in downtown Calexico were badly damaged and the area will be closed until further notice.
“The governor’s office received a declaration of local emergency proclamation,” Imperial County Supervisor Louis Fuentes at the press conference. “As of this morning, the Governor has been briefed and the emergency proclamation that he would sign is being drafted as we speak.”
The port of entry in Calexico also received heavy damage and was closed to vehicle traffic at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday. Traffic from the port was diverted to the Calexico East Port of Entry, which will remain open for 24-hours a day until further notice. Pedestrian traffic was being processed through the vehicle lanes at the downtown port of entry.
There were several reports of heavily damaged buildings in the Calexico area, including the De Anza Hotel, which was evacuated. A senior care facility in Calexico was also evacuated by the American Red Cross and residents were moved to a shelter.
In El Centro, damage to the main street shopping district was heavy, with broken glass, mortar, and bricks littering the sidewalks. Several buildings were roped off with police caution tape, including the Old Town El Centro Plaza building, which showed the most obvious damage. Bureau of Land Management Rangers were patrolling the streets in downtown El Centro, keeping pedestrians away from unsafe buildings and guarding the many storefronts with broken windows.
So far, authorities haven’t reported any damage in Holtville, Brawley or Imperial.
Fire Chief Rouhotas told reporters that one serious injury had been reported in El Centro, but didn’t provide any details on the incident. Rouhotas said the injured person was in critical condition and remains hospitalized.
Imperial County offices were closed on Monday and are expected to be re-opened as soon as inspectors can insure the structural integrity of the building.
On the other side of the border, Mexicali took the brunt of the quake, suffering widespread power outages, water outages, and structural damage. Rouhotas also said that there have been nine structure fires reported in the city and officials have called for mutaul assistance from the Imperial Valley Fire Department in the form of a 2,500 gallon water tender to help fight the fires.
There have been two deaths reported in Mexicali so far. One man died when his home collapsed, and another was killed after he panicked during the quake and ran into oncoming traffic.
A parking structure at Mexicali City Hall also collapsed, but no one in the facility at the time.
Two powerful aftershocks, centered in Guadalupe Victoria, Mexico, hit shortly after the main quake, and two more, centered south of Seeley, hit during the early morning hours.
So far, there have been aftershocks centered in Mexicali, Calexico, Seeley, Brawley, Holtville, Niland, Salton City, Ocotillo, Jacumba, Julian, Hemet, and dozens of other places across southern California.
According to Caltech Seismologist Lucy Jones, the probability of an aftershock of at least 6.0 magnitude is ‘reasonably likely’. Jones also said that there is a 5 percent chance of the region having another earthquake of 7.3 magnitude or higher.
County officials are urging residents to be prepared for large aftershocks.
“We can’t predict them, but they need to be expected,” said Rouhotas. “Stay at home or in other safe places unless it is absolutely necessary to be out on the road.”
Other recommendations made by county officials include:
– When cleaning up, be watchful for broken glass and falling debris.
– Never turn off gas lines unless you smell or hear gas escaping. If you have a gas leak, do not use any incendiary devices, such as matches, and don’t use any electrical devices. From a safe location, call the gas company at 1-800-427-2200.