Monday, April 4, 2011
The main highway that runs through the Mexicali Valley is smooth now. That wasn’t the case last year. The 7.2 magnitude earthquake was so strong it ripped open cracks big enough to stand in. Tent camps popped up on the side of the highway as people ran out of the valley to higher, safer ground.
“It sounded like thunder. Like someone put dynamite in the mountains,” recalled Jose Luis Gonzalez. “A minute or two after the shaking stopped, geysers of water burst from the earth. It was like something out of the movies.”
People forded newly formed rivers to escape the valley and get up to the highway. They lived in tent camps for weeks after the quake. Now, the tents have been replaced by rows and rows of government housing, little cookie-cutter boxes.
A year ago, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake shook the region from Mexicali as far north as Los Angeles. Around the epicenter, in the Mexcali Valley, about 30 miles south of the border, the quake left 25,000 homeless and ruptured lives. People are slowly putting things back together.
Gonzalez’s ranch was destroyed. Until two months ago, he and his family had been been camping in the yard, under fruit trees killed by the quake. Then the government gave him keys to the new place in the desert next to the road. “It’s not very big. Not like my house. But, at least it is something,” said Gonzalez, wearing a straw cowboy hat and boots. He was standing in the dust outside the tiny
new place. He’s hung two ceramic sunflowers on the front to try to make it feel homier, and he's making a shade awning.
Baja California government officials say they’ve built 3,700 homes. They have 300 more to go.
Before the quake, Gonzalez farmed wheat for a living on land his family has owned for decades. The quake destroyed the fields. Gonzalez found a job at a television-manufacturing plant in an industrial park in Mexicali, about 30 miles north of his old home.
“It’s difficult. When you’ve spent all your life on the ranch where you could run, you could have animals. Here you can’t. If the government would help us ..." Gonzalez stopped himself. "Well, it has helped. I can’t complain."
Down in the valley, others do complain -- about the minimal amount of building materials in reconstruction packages the government gave out. Government officials say they passed out 800 to families whose homes government officials deemed partially damaged. “I would have been able to build a tiny room with the aid the government gave me,” said Lino Camacho, who was taking a break from building his new 500-square-foot home. It was about 100 degrees outside.
Chickens scampered over furniture piled in Camacho's yard. It’s what he rescued last year from his 60-year-old adobe home. Camacho ended up tearing his house down and starting over. To build the new place, he’s had to supplement the government package with boards he salvaged from the adobe.
“And I’ve bought material bit by bit. That’s why it is taking me so long,” said Camacho. Two months ago, he sold the limousine he used to rent out for parties so he could buy more wood. Camacho had lived in the limo for the previous 10 months.
Agriculture is the major industry in the Mexicali Valley. Last year, after the earthquake, there was worry it had all been ruined. Many of the fields looked more like rice paddies.
“The wheat in this field was flooded,” said Juan Trejo, who heads Baja California’s Wheat Producers Commission, as the wind whipped across the brown-dirt field where he stood. After the quake, fields weren’t flat anymore, which made it impossible to water. And, one of the main canals that irrigated the valley, Nueva Delta, was destroyed. “But, luckily, it wasn’t as serious as it looked.”
In all, more than 140,000 acres, or 20 percent of the valley’s arable land, was damaged. About 7 percent is still unusable. Mexico’s federal government has filled in lost profits with subsidies, though Trejo said the $240 per acre falls short.
Also, government tractors have come out to help farmers level their fields. Trejo said many farmers now have two or three levels, because the government didn’t dedicate enough time and resources to the repairs. That, and the damage to irrigation canals, mean farmers have to figure out a new way to irrigate. Government officials said it'll take three years to fix the canals.
While many have lost jobs due to the quake, it has given scientists their life’s work. Orlando Teran is a geologist at the Centro de Investigación Científica y de Educación Superior, a science institute in Ensenada.
Teran has spent the last year measuring how much the earth moved. He stretched his tape measure over a huge crack in the old highway between Mexicali and Tijuana, the main crack the quake ripped open as it tore along the land. “The mountain rose 6 feet and moved to the side about 10 feet,” said Teran. In some spots, it looks like someone lifted up the whole thing.
Teran said this quake has transformed scientists’ take on the Mexicali Valley.
“It tells us that this area is a lot more active than we ever thought.” That means the fault lines could be more dangerous, and the region could be more prone to big quakes than previously thought.