Imperial Valley residents feel the financial pinch a year after the Easter earthquake

IMPERIAL VALLEY, Calif.–Recovery from the Easter Sunday 7.2-magnitude earthquake that rocked California’s Imperial Valley on April 4, 2010, has been slow for many whose homes or business buildings suffered damage in the historic temblor.

In the county seat of El Centro alone losses are estimated at $8 million to buildings and property, according to Ruben Duran, city manager for the City of El Centro.

“Everything that we are doing, we are doing on our own dime,” said Duran, who explained during a March 22 news conference that a big part of the county’s recovery is the actual financing of repairs.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency committed $178,000, but that might not materialize for decades, Duran noted.

FEMA’s contribution is assigned by Congress, but subsequently declared disasters can bump funding for the previous ones.   “We put away money years ago,” said Duran. “Those savings are what’s building us.”

Holtville, a much smaller farming community of 6,000 10 miles east of El Centro had its share of damages.

Structural damage from the Easter Sunday 2010 earthquake

Sidney Castanon, 10, sits next to the repaired crack in her family's house in Holtville, Calif. on April 3, 2011. The gap, caused by the Easter 2010 earthquake, measured about six inches in height and was the main reason the Castanon’s could not live in their home for nearly 10 months. --Photo by Emily Ming

The Castañon family was put out of their home for almost a year after the earthquake, having been red-tagged by the Imperial County Planning and Building Department due to damages that made the home dangerous to live in.

Gabby Guerrero, the eldest daughter in the family, recalls the day the quake struck.  She was home alone while her family was at their other house in Salton City, about 30 miles north of Holtville, and much farther from the epicenter of the quake than any other towns in the valley.

“After every aftershock, I go back to that day,” said Guerrero.  Dozens of aftershocks reaching up to magnitudes between 4.0 and nearly 6.0 continued for months following the Easter quake.  Valley residents were rattled just three days before the one-year anniversary of the quake by a 4.4 aftershock, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

After the Easter earthquake, the Castañons called the Imperial County Planning and Building Department to get their house inspected, and they found major cracks within the walls.

“You were standing inside and could see outside,” said Guerrero.  One of the add-on rooms to the house had fallen partially away from the rest of the house.

They gathered paperwork in order to find help with repair costs and were directed by county authorities to FEMA. After a few months of being told that they would receive federal help, Guerrero and her family contacted the overseeing engineering firm, The Holt Group, Inc., but were told that FEMA could no longer provide the money.  Calls to The Holt Group for comment have not been returned.

The family ultimately had to pay for the damages from savings, hiring a friend to repair the house. Nine months later in January 2011 they had their last inspection by county building inspectors. The repairs were approved and they got the okay to move back in.

John Conner, owner of Conner Construction, had his business in the Imperial Cabinet building on Commercial Avenue in El Centro.  Conner rushed to the building after the earthquake, discovering a large hole above his section of the building where bricks had fallen through the ceiling.

“I had no place to go,” said Conner, who had to relocate to a different building a street away, and spending approximately $6,000 out of pocket to fix it up and ensure security for his tools and property, money he won’t be reimbursed.

The building was red-tagged and is currently being considered by the city for demolition, Duran said.

Property damages aside, Duran said the valley was “fortunate” since there were no serious injuries or deaths as a result of the earthquake.   “You can replace a lot of things, but the loss of lives, there’s nothing you can do with that.”

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