Two years later: A return to Ridgecrest and Trona on anniversary of earthquakes

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RIDGECREST AND TRONA, Calif. (KGET) — Monday marked two years since powerful earthquakes and aftershocks struck the Ridgecrest and Trona region.

The city of Ridgecrest and town of Trona were rocked by a series of powerful earthquakes including a magnitude 6.4 and 7.1 on July 4-5, 2019. Both temblors caused significant damage to homes, buildings, businesses, and military establishments in the region. Felt as far away as Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Sacramento, they were the strongest quakes to strike California in 20 years. Remarkably, no one died in Ridgecrest and there were no major injuries, but one death was reported in Nevada.

In Ridgecrest, a city with a population of roughly 30,000 on the far eastern edge of Kern County, the popular Ridgecrest Cinemas were especially hit hard; the roof inside theater #1 completely caved in, forcing the establishment to shut down for three weeks following the earthquake. Two years since the quakes, nearly all of the theater rooms at the establishment are back open, and theater #1 is under repairs. The wall where a screen once displayed movies is now covered in wood.

“The future is we’re going to have another theater here one day,” said Ridgecrest Cinemas General Manager Kelly Walden as she spoke about theater #1. She is keeping a realistic and optimistic outlook as the theater moves into the post-pandemic era.

While she rebuilds, some parts of the city have not. A mobile home on West Ward Avenue that was knocked off of its foundation during the foundation remains red tagged and still off of its foundation two years later. The state is working to remove it.

But there are other parts of Ridgecrest that have rebuilt. The brick wall across from the mobile home on West Ward Ave. is back up, and, in what was a more significant rebuilding effort, $4 Billion in government aid was allocated for repairs at nearby Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake. The base suffered billions of dollars in damage during the earthquakes, forcing thousands of people to relocate to temporary units on the outskirts of Ridgecrest.

Former Mayor Peggy Breeden, who now serves as a councilmember on the Ridgecrest City Council, famously stood in front of thousands of people after the earthquakes in July 2019, chanting “Ridgecrest Rocks!” During an interview with 17 News on the anniversary of the earthquakes, Breeden, with a smile on her face, proudly stated “Ridgecrest still rocks!”

“I can remember saying ‘Ridgecrest rocks!’ and when I said it I saw the people’s eyes light up,” Breeden said. “We saw it was us working to find solutions to our community, and we did.”

When asked about a takeaway from the quakes, Ridgecrest Police Chief Jed McLaughlin said the quakes reminded people to expect the unexpected.

“Should we have another one — which I hope we do not — we’ll be even that much more prepared,” McLaughlin said.

Mayor Eric Bruen elaborated on more measurable solutions and successes the city has seen in the wake of the quakes.

“We’ll have 4 new eateries within six months [and] have a new hotel within six months. This is all being driven of the incredible opportunities of regrowth that’s coming from the quake,” Bruen said.

“Nobody wants to imply an earthquake is a good thing because it obviously can be tragic loss of life and damage, but in our case, it was a huge opportunity for our community to come out of it with a strong future,” Bruen continued.

But in the Searles Valley, San Bernardino County town of Trona about 25 miles east of Ridgecrest, the buildings and present a different picture. Trona’s only large grocery store, Family Dollar, boarded up and closed after the earthquake and so did one of a handful of gas stations in the town. Throughout this town of 2,000 people, large cracks in the sidewalks are still visible, and Trona High School — the home of the Tornadoes — had so much damage during the earthquake, that it was deemed unsafe for its students who now take classes at the elementary school.

When asked if she felt the town has been forgotten, Cathy Heseman, who has lived in Trona since 1965 and serves as vice president of the Searles Valley Historical Society, said ” “Trona being a small town, we’re used to it, but we take care of ourselves.”

“It would cost $55 million to fix the high school to meet the current codes. We can’t do that,” Heseman, a trustee on the Trona Joint Unified School District, said. “We will never get the high school back. I know we’re a small school district, but those kids still needed their school. So what we’re looking at is having to rebuild.”

Congressman Jay Obernolte said he felt the federal government has not done enough to help Trona. “it’s an unqualified no to that,” he said.

Elected to Congress after the earthquakes, Obernolte previously served in the state legislature. The primary issue of concern, according to him, was with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, also known as FEMA. Specifically, FEMA’s formula that ultimately determines who gets federal aid and how much, actually makes it extremely difficult for rural communities like Trona to receive any aid after a major disaster, per Obernolte.

“The criteria by which FEMA decides which disasters are eligible for their aid is outdated because it factors in the population of the state compared to the cost of the disaster. If you have a large state like California with many residents — we’ve got about 40 million — and you have a small community like Trona, you could knock the entire community flat and not qualify for FEMA assistance. That is just patently ridiculous,” said Obernolte, a Republican from Hesperia.

Obernolte, now in his second term representing California’s 8th Congressional District, hopes to introduce legislation to change the FEMA criteria for assistance, but in the meantime, he sent a letter to Governor Gavin Newsom, urging Newsom to make sure some of the pandemic relief funding sent to California from the feds makes it to Trona.

“They desperately need this relief funding. What I’m pointing to the governor is that the federal government just wrote CA a $42 billion check. Billion with B. Result of the stimulus legislation passed in Congress, so surely some that can be spared to help a small community like Trona make sure their school district continues to be solvent.”

While Heseman described life post-earthquakes as “rough,” she added that the town has “had a lot of positive things happening too,” including the rebuilding of some portions of Trona and improvements that were made to the Old Guest House Museum. Additionally, San Bernardino county has started to take care of dilapidated houses that were abandoned years before the earthquake even happened.

Hesmen said the people of Trona have kept positive through all of the challenges, something she believes has kept the town going.

“The earthquake is a thing of the past, hopefully COVID is a thing of the past. So people are starting to get a much more positive outlook. We still remind each other that we can get things done and take care of each other and take care of ourselves. Absolutely Trona Strong.”

More than 1,400 detected aftershocks have struck Ridgecrest and Trona since July 4, 2019. Anyone who may need counseling or emotional support can always call or text the Red Cross 24/7 Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990.

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