Northern California earthquake: marked in red and homeless before Christmas

As aftershocks rumbled and crews worked in Humboldt County on Wednesday afternoon to restore water and electricity cut off by the powerful earthquake that struck earlier this week, Kevin Mcniece rushed to his old home, hoping to beat a code enforcement team so he can seize some of his possessions before access is blocked.

It was too late. The earthquake-stricken structure had already been marked in red by the time Mcniece, 37, a sawmill machinist, arrived to try to retrieve some of his possessions, including his beloved record collection, from worth thousands of dollars.

Kevin Mcniece stands outside his home in Rio Dell which has been ‘labeled red’ – deemed no longer livable – due to damage from Tuesday’s 6.4 magnitude earthquake. He slept at the nearby Scotia Lodge.

(Mackenzie Mays/Los Angeles Times)

He could only stare helplessly through what was once his kitchen window at the damage: blown cabinets, fire stains on the ceiling, and shattered glass everywhere.

The house had fallen off its stilts and cracked into three separate pieces. A fire had broken out in the kitchen; the water began to spit. He and his cat, Gamora, had gone to safety. But now what?

One day after a 6.4 earthquake rocked these redwood-covered rural townskilling two and injuring at least 17, it was clear that the Mcniece community of Rio Dell, a logging town built on the cliffs of the Eel River, had suffered the brunt of the damage.

“I became homeless in about 20 seconds,” Mcniece said.

It was a blow that this community of 3,400 people could barely afford. Already plagued by the decline of the lumber industry for decades, nearly three-quarters of school district children qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch.

And now there are dozens of red-labeled structures and many homeless residents just days before Christmas. The full cost of the damage has yet to be determined, officials said. Most of the city is under a boil water ordinance, assuming water comes out of their taps. “So many leaks,” said Mayor Debra Garnes, of her city’s fractured water system.

“We had a ham and everything,” Rio Dell resident John Ireland said of his plans to cook Christmas dinner for his mother, Anita Ireland, 72. “And now we could be on the street.”

Ireland, her mother and her pit bull, Sarah, have lived off her 2007 Toyota Camry since the earthquake woke them up in the dark early hours of Tuesday. They later learned that their Rio Dell home had also been labeled as unsafe.

Ryan Heussler, Rio Dell's deputy fire chief, left, hugs a woman named Patty.

Ryan Heussler, left, Rio Dell’s deputy fire chief, hugs a woman named Patty, who did not wish to give her last name, as firefighters attempt to douse the flames at her home on Wednesday.

(Godofredo A. Vasquez/Associated Press)

“I grabbed my meds and my blanket, that’s about it,” Anita Ireland said. “We slept in a parking lot last night and will probably do so tonight, and until help comes.”

The quake struck at 2:34 a.m., its epicenter just offshore. It broke along an onshore fault and traveled northeast through the old lumber towns south of the county seat of Eureka, a place of dense forests, cool mists and economies. troubled locals. It’s a place so remote from the rest of California that many locals jokingly describe themselves as living on an island. The area is also used to earthquakes: tsunami warning signs are posted at regular, jarring intervals along local streets and most locals ignore small tremors. But this quake, many residents said, felt stronger, longer and noisier.

Many walked out on Wednesday full of apprehension. But the precariousness of a natural disaster was revealed in the very different effect it had on city dwellers within minutes of each other. For some, this has meant homelessness; for others, just a few broken dishes. Outside of Rio Dell, many were surprised and relieved to find that the damage was not as severe as they feared.

Across the Eel River from Rio Dell, the community of Scotia, which has fewer than 1,000 residents, emerged largely unscathed. Most of the historic buildings from the early 1900s that line the main street seemed intact. A few shattered windows marred the Southern Trinity Health Services building on B Street – a former Victorian hospital on a hill overlooking the local sawmill and the River Eel.

Power was restored to the town on Wednesday afternoon, although the sawmill was still down. A few workers surveyed the sites and installations. John Andersen, director of forest policy for the Humboldt and Mendocino Redwood Co., said it was one of the biggest employers in the region – with about 200 plant operators, loggers, biologists, geologists and engineers at Scotia Sawmill. The employees are all hourly.

A home damaged by an earthquake in Rio Dell, California.

A home damaged by an earthquake in Rio Dell, California on Tuesday.

(Godofredo A. Vasquez/Associated Press)

Andersen said the lumber company employees went to Costco in Ukiah the day before and took as much water as they could. They took him back to the Rio Dell fire station. With power outage in the communitythe inhabitants did not have access to drinking water.

“I suspect that in the days and weeks to come, we will likely help support these towns by possibly contributing softwood lumber” or creating matching funds to help the town rebuild. He said the logging company is determined to help these communities avoid the encroachment of the “rural scourge”.

Despite the scale of the earthquake, elsewhere in the county, life was returning to routine.

In Ferndale, a Victorian town of 1,300 people heavily dependent on tourism, some had worried about the lack of electricity and the closure of Fernbridge, which was built on the Eel River in 1911 to connect Ferndale to US 101, could deal a devastating blow during the critical holiday season.

But the historic bridge was reopened on Wednesday afternoon. Power was also restored and illuminated garlands of Christmas lights.

Caroline Titus, which published and edited Ferndale Enterprise until it sold it last year and which also owns two Airbnb rentals, said it heard from guests scheduled for Christmas and New Years that they were still coming.

“We are completely back to normal,” she said Wednesday afternoon. She said only a few windows in the city were broken.

Titus said she was not surprised that Ferndale had rebounded so quickly: in an area used to seismic activity, she said all buildings in town had been renovated. A magnitude 6.2 earthquake struck exactly one year ago.

If she were to experience earthquakes, she said, “I would much rather be here where nothing is going to fall on you” than in a big city anywhere else in California.

Eureka, the region’s largest city with a population of 26,000, was hit hard by the quake, with residents woken by collapsing shelves, shattered glass and the darkness of a blackout of electricity.

The town, once the center of the timber industry, has become increasingly dependent on tourism, with cruise ships starting to appear in Humboldt Bay and sending visitors to the streets of its charming old town.

Timmy Ramirez, left, looks up at his mother's friend Bunny Bailey as they walk through Bailey's apartment

Timmy Ramirez, left, looks up at his mother’s friend, Bunny Bailey, as they walk through Bailey’s apartment in Rio Dell. The strong earthquake rocked a rural part of Northern California early Tuesday, waking residents, knocking out power to thousands and damaging some buildings and a road, officials said.

(Godofredo A. Vasquez/Associated Press)

Solstice, a shop in the Old Town that sells handicrafts and food, was back up and running within 24 hours, said employee Raelina Krikston. “Honestly, I was sort of hoping for a three-day Amish vacation,” she said. “But the electricity is back, so we’re back too.”

Tourists were also back, hopping in and out of gift shops, clothing boutiques and cafes. The city’s dark, damp streets were warmed by Christmas lights and holiday stalls.

Cadence Knight, a salesman at Land of Lovely – a gift shop on 2nd Street – said very little of the merchandise was damaged. The ceramics and glassware lining the shelves had barely moved. “The wooden cutting boards had the hardest time,” she said.

Up the hill in Old Town, Padma and Akash Taggarse, visiting from Tucson, Arizona, braved Sequoia Park Zoo’s Redwood Sky Walk – a 100-foot-tall suspended suspension bridge. “The earthquake didn’t really slow us down,” Padma Taggarse said. “We just had trouble getting coffee yesterday.”

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