Friday, April 8, 2011
California Calexico is a city that’s shaking all the time. It lies at the southern end of California’s San Andreas fault system. And one year ago, on Easter Sunday, one of those fault lines served up a 7.2 magnitude quake that damaged buildings, broke water pipes and killed a couple of people on the Mexican side of the border.
Nobody in Calexico died. But people in this border town of close to 40,000 people are still cleaning up the mess and fixing broken buildings.
I visited the town on Wednesday. My first stop was Jefferson Elementary School, which suffered the most damage of any school in town. The school has been empty since the earthquake, and it looks abandoned even though the school district plans to move back in.
There was an overstuffed coach sitting in the middle of an unkempt courtyard. The Kindergarten classroom was full of broken ceiling tiles and piles of year-old assignments. Pictures of Easter bunnies were still up on the wall.
This is the same scene that principal Lucio Padilla saw when he came to the school just a few hours after the quake.
"I couldn't believe it!” he said. “I couldn't believe the damage that had been done. I started making phone calls to notify people to shut off the water. And I definitely knew there would be some attention that would be needed at Jefferson."
Today Jefferson kids play outside during recess, just like before. But they are attending classes in a set of makeshift, one-room buildings on the edge of the school campus. Principal Padilla says he doesn’t expect to be back in the main school building until December.
Ceilings, soffits and water pipes weren't the only things that took a hit from the earthquake. The Calexico school superintendent said the quake forced them to cancel many days of classes throughout the district.
"The high school was out for 20 days and Jefferson students were out for 23 days,” said superintendent Richard Fragale. “All the rest of the students were back in class at the end of 17 days. That's a major hit, cost-wise."
That's because school districts are reimbursed by the state per student, per day. Lost days means lost revenue. About $11 million in the case of Calexico Unified.
During my visit I had lunch at a Chinese restaurant with Calexico’s mayor, city manager and chamber of commerce director. They’re all cousins. The cheerful waiter brought us green tea ice cream, a house specialty. He was wearing a T-shirt bearing the name of the restaurant and the company slogan: Taste my noodle.
Mayor John Moreno said he was optimistic about the progress Calexico has made.
“Our city right now is 95 percent. Our downtown is 95 percent. There are some houses that need to be rehabbed. There are some fences and stuff that still need to be fixed," he said.
The cost of rebuilding Calexico has fallen to a bureaucratic assembly that includes the State of California, FEMA and the Small Business Administration. Moreno said repairing the city’s water treatment plant, alone, will cost $28 million.
"And now we're waiting for the money that was pushed by Sen. Barbara Boxer from the U.S. Congress. Now it's in Sacramento… and we're just waiting for it to funnel to the city of Calexico," he said.
Frustrations with slow progress have taken a toll on the political establishment of the border town. Both the city manager and the school superintendent have been ousted by their respective boards over the past year due to personality conflicts and criticism of their post-quake performance.
The earthquake caused some people to lose their homes. Anderson Apartments were structurally damaged and condemned, causing the loss of 16 units and the displacement of about 45 people. One hundred and seventeen people were temporarily displaced from the De Anza Hotel, an old folks home about three blocks from the Anderson building. Residents had to be housed in motels while the building was patched up.
Another Calexico group that has had to bounce back is the downtown business community. Some buildings were deemed unsafe and demolished. Most others were closed while inspectors made sure they were stable and safe to use.
Downtown grocery store owner Eduardo Lopez found his store in shambles after the earthquake.
"We were kind of shocked at the amount of damage as far as all the merchandise being on the ground,” said Lopez. “And we did have to throw away quite a bit of merchandise."
Though business has mostly returned to normal, Lopez estimated the Easter earthquake cost him $70,000.
"I was not covered for earthquake . So basically the store had to absorb the loss of revenue, in addition to all the damage done to the store," he said.
Maybe the damage that affected the community more than any other was the destruction of the high school pool. Many people described it to me as a special place; a fun gathering spot for young people.
Calexico often feels the tremors of earthquakes that aren't big enough to cause any damage. But now they are a chilling reminder of the big one on Easter of last year. Calexicans are hoping the earthquakes stay small for now. At least until everything in town gets fixed.