Imperial Valley Update: Economic Impact Of Earthquake
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Last week, we spoke with Imperial Valley Press editor Brad Jennings and learned that the Easter earthquake that only really shook nerves here in San Diego, created real damage and concern for areas of the Imperial County. Today we want to check in again and see how Imperial Valley is coping with the earthquake recovery and the many, many aftershocks that continue to rattle the area. Once again, I’d like to welcome my guest Brad Jennings, editor of the Imperial Valley Press. Brad, good morning.
BRAD JENNINGS (Editor, Imperial Valley Press): Good morning, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: What has the last week been like for people living in the Imperial Valley?
JENNINGS: You know, it’s hard to describe. It was a little surreal early in the week. I think things have gotten as close back to normal as they can with this circumstance. I think there’s been, definitely, some frightened people. These aftershocks continue. They continued through the weekend. I haven’t felt anything today. But, you know, that definitely shakes you up; it reminds you. But people have really buckled down. They’re trying to push forward so we can get some relief here and to get some of these damaged buildings back, fixed and online.
CAVANAUGH: Now does the fact that there’ve been aftershock after aftershock, does that continue to rattle nerves or is it something that, in a strange way, you get used to?
JENNINGS: You know, I think it’s probably split. I think some people get used to it and some people have been used to it and, you know, my wife and I were kind of joking, there was a 5.3, I believe, on Saturday, and we looked at each other and said, eh, 5.3, you know, after a 7.2. But some people definitely are shaken up by this and there’s a lot of kids that we’ve heard about that have had some real lasting trauma, I think, from this. A 7.2 is a very large earthquake so I think it’ll take some time for people to kind of calm down.
CAVANAUGH: Now what are the latest damage estimates in Imperial Valley in terms of businesses and homes damaged?
JENNINGS: You know, it – I have to say that’s a real moving target. Things that we thought were locked in at certain amounts keep changing. El Centro, late in the week, they were estimating the damage at $80 million. On Saturday, we had a story that the damage was estimated at $57 and a half million but they said that will go up. El Centro Regional Medical Center itself is estimated to have at least $37 million in damage.
CAVANAUGH: Wow. And any damage estimates coming in from, let’s say, Calexico?
JENNINGS: There are some but they’re, again, they’re just so preliminary. You know, we have reported that the water treatment and sewage treatment facilities there suffered $17, $18 million in damage, and downtown Calexico is still closed. There are so many red-tagged buildings—red-tag meaning you can’t go in it—and there are some reg-tagged buildings right next door to buildings that are fine but those red-tagged buildings could fall onto the good buildings. So they’re being very cautious in Calexico, which is a smart thing to do, and I think that we’re going to see these estimates continue to change.
CAVANAUGH: Any idea when downtown Calexico is going to reopen?
JENNINGS: No, I don’t have any idea. It was supposed to be late last week and then officials said, no, we can’t do that. So it’s a day-by-day, play it by ear thing. You know, there are some buildings that are open we didn’t expect to be open. The Dillard’s here suffered quite extensive damage from their sprinkler system coming on and we were told it was going to be weeks before they were going to reopen. I was at the mall on Saturday and they were open.
CAVANAUGH: Wow, okay. Let me ask you about the one or two people who’ve suffered injuries, I mean bad injuries, in this quake. I believe that there’s a 61-year-old man who’s still recovering from a head injury, is that right?
JENNINGS: That’s right. And he is the one in the Imperial Valley that was injured. As a matter of fact, we talked to his family, have a story today on our website, ivpressonline.com, about that. He was walking right after the earthquake, walked by a carwash and a sign that was hanging outside the carwash fell and hit him.
JENNINGS: So he was severely injured. His daughter seemed to think that he’s going to come through and pull out of this but he did definitely suffer some injuries, very severe injuries.
CAVANAUGH: And I hear that Imperial County schools will remain closed through this week, is that correct?
JENNINGS: You know, again, it’s another one of those things that’s a bit of a moving target.
JENNINGS: Our schools are open. I drove to…
JENNINGS: …work this morning and there were the kids. It was kind of interesting. I was driving up 8th Street here to school and the lanes are kind of closed off because the water tower is condemned and might fall and that’s right across the street from the school where the kids were crossing the street, so you had a lot of law enforcement out there. They’re going to take that tower down later this week, I believe. A lot of traffic kind of slowed down, a lot of kids crossing, there’s things blocked off. Calexico, however, is not going to be in session at least for this week because they lost – one school that they know of will not reopen the rest of this school year.
CAVANAUGH: And – I’m speaking with Brad Jennings. He’s editor of the Imperial Valley Press, and I’m wondering, is, as you say, a lot of this is a moving target. Are the aftershocks in some way compounding whatever confusion there may be in trying to figure out what’s damaged and what the damage estimates are, etcetera, etcetera?
JENNINGS: That’s a good question and yes, that’s certainly true especially in Calexico. Late last week when they were thinking about reopening some businesses the aftershocks kept hitting. I know one of those 5.3s late last week, you know, I think may have caused a little more damage to some buildings. So city officials throughout the county have decided to kind of slow down, step back a little bit and really rethink these things before they get them reopened.
CAVANAUGH: Now you mentioned that there’s a sewage problem, a sewage treatment plant problem, that all of this raw sewage has been leaking into the New River as a result of…
JENNINGS: Yeah, yeah.
CAVANAUGH: …damage caused by the quake. What kind of impact could that have on the valley’s environment?
JENNINGS: You know, I wish I could say it was a horrible impact…
JENNINGS: …but when you’re talking about the New River…
JENNINGS: …the New River has had horrible impacts on this valley for decades and nothing has been done about it. But, you know, you’re looking at about 200 gallons of this raw waste water, this raw sewage, just dumping continuously into the New River. It’s a problem. I believe they have the pipe fixed. They were working hard on it last week. But that’s just adding more misery to an already exceptionally polluted river.
CAVANAUGH: Now I know that Governor Schwarzenegger has made a visit to Imperial County.
CAVANAUGH: Senator Barbara Boxer – and I wonder if it’s given a sense of recognition and perhaps, you know, that there are better things ahead for the people who’ve, you know, suffered damage in this earthquake?
JENNINGS: You know, I think so. It’s interesting, we had an editorial in the newspaper on Thursday kind of chastising the governor for not showing up and he showed up that same day, so we don’t mind a little egg on our face. We’re just glad that he came. It was a very whistle-stop moment. I mean, he flew in, did a quick tour, made a few comments, and left. But we’re glad he did. I think it means something to people. He saw some of the damage firsthand. He heard some of the stories. Hopefully, that will help move the process forward a little bit because government, as we know, doesn’t always move quickly. And it was nice that the Senator came in, too. As a matter of fact, I’ve been here for four years and she’s never been in the valley since I’ve been here and I hear…
JENNINGS: …that she maybe never has, maybe once before. So it was good that she came. It’s nice to have the state and federal leaders come because we believe that will help them really understand the problem and help, again, push the money that we’re really going to need through.
CAVANAUGH: Right, now did they promise anything? Is the governor – did he declare a disaster area or anything like that?
JENNINGS: Now, Maureen, have you ever met a politician that didn’t promise something?
CAVANAUGH: That’s very true.
JENNINGS: He actually…
CAVANAUGH: Silly question.
JENNINGS: The governor actually declared it an emergency earlier in the week before he came.
CAVANAUGH: I see.
JENNINGS: But he did promise that he would do what he could to push this through, and the senator did as well. So we believe that will certainly happen.
CAVANAUGH: Now, you know, in watching CNN last Sunday when the earthquake happened, the coverage seemed to focus primarily on Los Angeles.
CAVANAUGH: And every once in awhile San Diego was mentioned as if it were, you know, a city on – behind the fourth mountain on the moon, you know. But practically nobody talked about the Imperial Valley. I wonder if you could share your thoughts on the national media coverage this really big earthquake has received?
JENNINGS: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. It’s something we’ve talked about quite a bit in the newsroom now. Of course for us, this is a giant event. As a news person and as someone who lives in this community, I mean, this gives us an opportunity to really work a large event and to get information out to the public. But it was interesting, myself, I came in to work immediately on Sunday but I did go home for a little bit. Our power came back on and my wife and I turned on the TV. CNN was the only channel that we could find showing anything about this nationally, not Fox, not MSNBC.
JENNINGS: And it was surprising because it was Los Angeles reporting. They mentioned this place a little bit, the valley, a little bit of San Diego, but then they got off of it immediately. This is an earthquake that was larger in magnitude than the earthquake that hit Haiti, and it just disappeared from the national media radar, which was very surprising. Even the Associated Press in California sent a reporter down here for one day. I was very surprised by that.
CAVANAUGH: Why do you think that is, Brad?
JENNINGS: I think it’s a couple of reasons. I think the 24-hour news cycle we have these days especially with these national cable channels, they go on to the next death and destruction moment. And death is the key here. I hate to sound like I’m soured by this but we had one injury and it was a severe injury but I believe the gentleman is going to be okay. That was all we had. We had lots of damage—I mean, it’ll be hundreds of millions of dollars by the time this is all done…
JENNINGS: …to a very, very poor county that needs all the help it can get, that’s trying to pull out of a horrible recession.
JENNINGS: There’s a lot of human drama here but there wasn’t a huge body count, which I’m exceptionally thankful for but that seems to be all that they focus on on this national level these days.
CAVANAUGH: You know, I also read that this quake was actually felt by an estimated 20 million people.
CAVANAUGH: But I guess perhaps it had something to do with the fact that it was on a weekend and an Easter Sunday and so forth.
CAVANAUGH: All of that must’ve contributed to the fact that this became a blip on the national radar and then just went away.
JENNINGS: I was sure that’s true and then also then you have the mine disaster in West Virginia…
JENNINGS: …and I think that pushed the news trucks in that direction.
CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you to tell us a little bit more about the fact that – I know that Imperial County was already suffering greatly from the effects of the recession. How has the earthquake added to the problem?
JENNINGS: Well, that – another good question, and I think that is the story out of this entire event. When you have businesses that are closed, you have people that are out of work, and you also have tax dollars that are not being collected by cities. And some of these cities were already struggling greatly, especially Calexico. I mean, they were already having very severe budget problems. This is going to take more tax money away from them and that’s going to just add to the misery and that’s true with every city across the Imperial Valley. Businesses closed, people out of work, no tax revenue being collected, and then, as you know, when you’re fixing a building even if it caused $10 million in damage, trying to repair or replace that is going to cost almost twice as much.
CAVANAUGH: Right, exactly. I’m wondering, you must be – have interviewed lots of geologists the same way we have on this program.
JENNINGS: Yes, we have.
CAVANAUGH: What are they telling you about the aftershocks? Do they expect them to sort of taper off? I mean, I’ve heard from geologists, well, these aftershocks will go on for years. But they’re going to lose strength and they’re not going to come as frequently, right?
JENNINGS: Probably true. The one thing I’ve learned about geologists is these aren’t the most humorous bunch of people when you talk to them and ask them questions. Basically, they have told us, yes, you will feel aftershocks. In the first day or two, if you don’t have another one that’s that size or bigger, they will probably subside in size. However, because there are faults just spiderwebbed throughout the Imperial Valley, the chances of another large quake are great. The changes that this could trigger something in the southern end of the San Andreas fault are great. So they’re telling us, yes, you survived, yes, it was big. There will be some aftershocks, they could calm down, but another big one could be just around the corner.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Brad, what is expected to happen over the next few days in Imperial County? Are those damage estimates going to continue to be compiled?
JENNINGS: They will be. I think people are going to continue to go around, look at buildings, look at schools, make some real determinations, especially in Calexico, about what they’re going to do with schools. The one school is closed; that’s 800 students they have to put somewhere else. So they’ve got to make those decisions. They’re going to be doing that with the hospital, with sewage treatment, and water plants throughout the valley. So you’ll be seeing a lot of this going on for at least the next couple of weeks as they make determinations about what needs to be closed, what needs to be demolished, what can reopen, and how we can really finally start pushing some of the state and federal money here.
CAVANAUGH: Well, Brad, I want to thank you so much. You’ve given us a really good overview. And good luck, okay?
JENNINGS: You’re welcome. Thank you very much.
CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Brad Jennings. He’s editor of the Imperial Valley Press. If you’d like to comment on what you’ve heard, you can go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Now coming up, we’re going to be taking your calls, last minute tax tips, as These Days continues here on KPBS.