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California dodges major damage in 6.5 quake

world Updated: Jan 11, 2010 12:29 IST

AP
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Residents of a Northern California county gingerly cleaned up on Sunday after the area dodged a catastrophe, escaping a 6.5 magnitude earthquake with little more than bumps, cuts and broken glass.

Entrances to Eureka's Bayshore Mall were blocked as engineers surveyed for damage. Area bridges suffered some bent rails, and local stores reported messy aisles where bottles and jars flew from shelves and shattered, authorities said.

"We're very, very fortunate that it's not worse, but there is a lot of damage," Rep. Mike Thompson, said at a press conference. "This is a big deal."

Still, the Saturday afternoon temblor - centered in the Pacific about (35 kilometers) west of Ferndale - caused only limited structural damage and a few hours of power outage. There were no major injuries, other than an elderly resident's fractured hip. A preliminary estimate of damage in Eureka came to $12.5 million, said the city's fire chief, Eric Smith. No countywide assessment was available.

Agencies and residents were earthquake-ready, with plans in place and awareness of safety measures such as not hanging heavy things on walls. That helped avert destruction and panic, and sped along the recovery, officials said.

"I think we can attribute some of this to being prepared," said Phil Smith-Hanes, Humboldt County spokesman. "Folks in this area are used to living in earthquake country."

The quake's location - offshore, deep under the ocean and away from urban areas - also helped the region escape relatively unscathed what could have been a major disaster. A quake of similar size - 6.7 magnitude - killed 72 people and caused $25 billion in damage in 1994 in the Los Angeles area.

An earthquake analyst with the US Geological Survey said that while earthquakes cannot be predicted, a series will generally start with the largest tremor, then taper off in size and frequency. Several aftershocks struck the region overnight, some with magnitude as high as 4.1. None have been reported since early Sunday. "Almost always we see this pattern where they taper off," said Don Blakeman, with the USGS. This quake happened at the intersection of three plates - the Pacific, the North American and the Gorda. Rick Littlefield, owner of Eureka Natural Foods, said earthquakes are "part of the rules of the game up here."

The quake left some of the grocery store's aisles ankle-deep in broken bottles, jars and spilled goods, a loss Littlefield estimated at about $20,000. But the shelves were bolted in place, so they didn't topple. A generator kept power going.

When the temblor hit, about 150 people were shopping, he said. "A lot of customers freaked," he said Sunday morning. "People just dropped what they had - in the check stand even. People who were in the middle of a transaction just bailed and left their stuff." Power outages were widespread, affecting about 36,000 customers initially, but a quick response restored electricity to all by early Sunday, said Janna Morris, a spokeswoman for Pacific Gas & Electric Co.