The day after a 6.4 magnitude earthquake rocked Humboldt County in the early morning hours, emergency responders descended on the small city of Rio Dell, whose residents felt the brunt of the violent temblor.
By this afternoon, roughly 65 percent of the city’s homes had been inspected and 26 had been red-tagged, designating them as unsafe to inhabit. That means that roughly 65 local residents have been displaced, a number that will likely climb as inspections continue. Several homes slipped off their foundations. Others saw their brick fireplaces collapse, leaving gaping holes in their exterior walls.
Of those displaced, nine people stayed at an overnight shelter that’s been set up at Fortuna’s Rohner Park. Three others were referred to free hotel rooms. City staff assumes the rest were able to stay with nearby friends or family.
Another 37 homes have been yellow-tagged, meaning they were damaged in the quake but remain safe enough to live in.
At a press conference this afternoon, Rio Dell City Manager Kyle Knopp said staff revised yesterday’s estimate — that about half of the city’s homes had been inspected — downward.
“We did focus initially on the primary damage zone in the northeast corner of the community, so we do expect to the red-tagging to increase but not significantly,” he said.
As of this afternoon, power had been restored to more than 80 percent of Rio Dell’s households, according to Knopp, but the town’s damaged water system is taking longer to repair.
Shortly after the quake struck, city staff members learned that a series of cracks in the city’s water lines were leaking, causing the level in the main supply tank to decrease rapidly. Worried about maintaining enough water for fire suppression, the city shut the whole system down, leaving about 1,400 customers without water.
Today, crews worked to repair the cracks and check supply lines. They started from the main water tower above the city and proceeding systematically, from high to low elevation, sending water into the pipes a few blocks at a time, checking for leaks and then proceeding to the next segment.
Around 10:30 this morning, Knopp was at the north end of Wildwood Avenue, the city’s main drag, checking pipes alongside Water Superintendent Randy Jensen, Public Works Leadman Andres Lopez and other city employees.
“We want to try to restore as much as we possibly can,” Knopp said. “However, we do have several large breaks.”
Still, he was optimistic.
“We’re hoping to get 50 percent of water subscribers reactivated by 6 p.m., and we think that’s achievable,” he said. “It’s going to be a lot of work, but we have a great team — both the city workers and private contractors who have come on board to assist the city in this effort.”
Knopp explained that re-pressurizing the system can be complicated because it’s very unusual for these pipes not to have steady outward pressure from the flow of water inside. When the system shuts down, the reverse happens: the pressure from the surrounding soil pushes inward.
Once the stream is turned back on, Knopp said, “You can have a whole bunch of unintended consequences, like the water hammer effect. … So it’s actually a lot more complicated than people think, and it really requires a very, very good knowledge of the local system, which Randy has. I mean, he knows the system inside and out.”
At the time, water service had been restored to only about 210 customers. By 1 p.m. that number hadn’t changed. Those lucky enough to have water in their pipes still need to boil it if they plan to consume it, Jensen said. He and Lopez looked a bit dazed.
“Part of the trauma of this [earthquake] is that it has impacted the employees of the city, and they’re asked to come out,” Knopp said.
“Abandon ship and come do this,” Jensen phrased it.
Lopez’s own home, like many in the city, sits on a post and pier foundation, and it had shifted off its footing during the quake. He’s worried that there may be water leaks under the house.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Don’t have time to go under there and check yet.”
Rio Dell’s problems have been exacerbated by poor or non-existent cell service.
“This is the worst,” he said. “This is the most obnoxious thing. I’m going to switch from Verizon because, yeah, I get no data. I’m borrowing one of our secretaries’ cell phones that has a connection [via another provider]. … We’re really annoyed by Verizon. They have a tower up here. We assume that the generator ran out of gas because … yesterday, everything was working great. And then around 10 a.m. yesterday all of our phones, everything, just everything died.”
Even the copper land line at City Hall, which was supposed to serve as a backup option, had gone out.
Knopp said he’d called Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell earlier in the day to see if the county’s Office of Emergency Services could “light a fire” under Optimum, the land line server, and Verizon.
“Because it really, in this day and age, it’s really crippling,” he said of the communication blackout. “It’s delaying everything. Everything takes ten times longer to communicate. That’s a real problem.”
Up the road at City Hall, a line of porta-potties sat in the parking lot. A water truck filled with potable water was also there, allowing residents to come by and fill five-gallon buckets or other containers so they can at least flush their toilets.
Since this morning, a steady line of vehicles has snaked around the back of the fire hall as local residents queued up to receive donated flats of bottled water.
Hundreds of pallets of donated water bottles have been arriving on a staggered basis, allowing fire personnel and other volunteers to distribute them to thirsty families throughout the next few days as necessary, according to Fire Chief Shane Wilson.
“Right now we’re just responding to immediate-need incidents,” Wilson said this morning. “We’re distributing water and assisting the public in any way that we can.”
The water was donated by the Humboldt Redwood Company, Sysco Foods, Safeway and the California Office of Emergency Services.
Inside the fire hall, 300 hot lunches were served to hungry families from noon to 2 p.m. Local nonprofits, including Food for People, had volunteers show up to the water distribution line to hand out meals and non-perishable food for local residents to take home. Food has also been donated by Sysco Foods and Grocery Outlet, and the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services is helping to coordinate resources.
“It’s been tremendous,” Wilson said.
Local residents can come to the fire station to charge their devices, grab some snacks “and just maybe sit down for for a while,” he added. It’s open 24 hours a day and typically has water and hot coffee available. Knopp said he hoped to have showers available at the hall by this afternoon.
Around 10 a.m. Jody and Christine Holland were inside the hall with their two sons, ages four and eight. The whole family looked exhausted.
“We’ve got no power, no water,” Christine said. “We’re unable to see to clean our house up. There’s glass all over.”
The Hollands’ younger son has hypopituitarism, a rare condition in which the pituitary gland doesn’t make enough of certain hormones.
“We have to keep his meds cold and we can’t even really do that right now without any ice packs or power,” Christine said. Jody’s work crew was planning to bring the Hollands a cooler and ice packs later in the day.
Their elder son has been diagnosed with ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder, or ODD. The past day and a half has been rough on him, Christine said. The family lives in a 45-unit low-income apartment complex, and the owner doesn’t allow residents to use generators or bring candles inside.
“We’re all huddling in our king size bed to stay warm, so there’s four of us in there and us parents are getting bopped in the face,” Christine said. City officials have said it could take a week or more before everyone in the city gets their water supply back. How will the Holland family get by?
“Unknown,” Christine said. “I haven’t got enough wet wipes for the kids. We’ve all got medical issues.” She said the family survived yesterday on half a gallon of water.
Jody said he’s lived through previous earthquakes, including the one that hit this region exactly a year before Tuesday’s.
“This one hit us harder,” he said. “This is the first time with no water and no food.”
At the fire station, they loaded up on both.
Outside, the line of vehicles continued to move through the parking lot as volunteers hauled out shrink-wrapped flats of bottled water and loaded them into trunks and backseats.
“How many do you need?” one volunteer called out to the driver who’d just pulled up.
“Two,” replied the man behind the wheel, motioning to his wife in the passenger seat beside him. “She’s eight months pregnant.”
As a general rule, families of less than four were given one flat while larger families received two.
“We’re trying to ration,” explained volunteer and Rio Dell resident Katrina Rumley. “If they’ve got kiddos or lots of animals we’ll give ‘em two.”
Many of those passing through the line appeared to be in good spirits, happy to see friends and load up on drinking water.
“We’ve had our PJs on for two days,” one resident remarked with a smile, speaking to a volunteer from her car window.
Rio Dell resident Cynthia Dobereiner was in a jokey mood as she pulled her full-sized pickup through the line. Asked how she was holding up she replied, “I’m doing all right!” She then added, “People are gonna start stinking — no showers! I’m not gonna want to be around my husband. Maybe that’s not a bad thing!” She laughed.
Volunteers handed her four chicken pita wraps that had been wrapped in foil. “Thank you guys very much,” Dobereiner said. “Thank you so, so, so much. … Our fire department is the best!”
Like other locals, she was surprised by the strength of this latest earthquake.
“The sound was like a freight train coming through my bedroom, honest to God, and I was sound asleep,” she said. “But I noticed my fan, the ceiling fan. I’d never seen it rock out of the hole by the pin, in and out,” she said, mimicking the motion with her hands. “And all of a sudden the lights went out and I was like, ‘God’s gonna take me now! It’s gonna land on me!’ It was amazing. It was the worst [earthquake] I’ve ever been in in my life.”
At the Dollar General store across Wildwood Avenue, a cleaning crew was working to dig out from the extensive mess of products that had tumbled off the shelves. An entire aisle of beverages had fallen to the floor, their containers shattering, the mixture of fluids drenching the boxes of cereal that had fallen from the shelves across the way.
Outside, wheelbarrows and shopping carts full of sticky, ruined products awaited the next dump run.
“We already took away one dump trailer load, ” said Lisa Hunter. The owner of this Dollar General lives on the east coast and had hired her husband’s company, Hunter and Son Construction, to do the cleanup, she said.
A passing motorist pulled her sedan into the parking lot.
“Are you open?” she called out. The workers said they weren’t, but one of them offered, “There’s batteries for free over here! Batteries and candy!” Some Duracell double-As were on a folding table. The candy appeared to have been all snatched up.
A brief press conference was held at City Hall at 2 p.m. Knopp relayed the good news that power had been turned on for most of the city. Unfortunately, almost immediately afterwards, a fire erupted nearby, inside a single-family house on the 700 block of Ireland Street.
Wilson reported that firefighters responded quickly, and with the water on board their engine they were able to knock it down and contain it before it spread. The damage was mostly limited to one room and its contents, with a little bit of spread into the attic. The cause is not yet known, but Wilson said it could be related to the resumed electrical current.
“Radiant heat can come from an outlet … with debris impacted contacts, metal objects or anything,” he said. “Heater devices that are left plugged in and maybe had some fall off [shelves]. I mean, it could be a number of things.”
The city has had three confirmed fires since the earthquake, including one sparked in the immediate aftermath by a displaced hot water heater.
Knopp reiterated the importance of the boil water order.
For those who’ve had their water service restored, he said, “you can still use it for bathing, you can still use it to flush toilets, but it is not safe raw out of the tap for consumption. So it is important for that to boil your water before you drink it. It will be some time before we are able to test the system to make sure that it [meets] clean and safe drinking water standards, so that’s at least a week or maybe longer before we can have the water become potable.”
Garbage dumpsters have been placed along Wildwood Avenue so that Rio Dell residents can dump spoiled food and earthquake debris. Tomorrow, cleanup kits will be available for pickup at the fire hall, supplying residents with brooms, garbage bags, etc.
Noting that the region’s business community has been impacted, Knopp encouraged local business owners to log onto the website for the county’s Economic Development Division tomorrow to fill out a survey.
“We really need all businesses to fill this out, whether you’re in Rio Dell or Garberville or Fortuna — anybody who’s been impacted by this earthquake, we really need you to fill out the form to participate in the survey that regards economic and job losses to your business.”
He also encouraged members of the business community to check out the websites for the Regional Economic Development Commission and the Small Business Development Center for additional information and assistance.
The Humboldt County Office of Emergency Services is operating a non-emergency line for welfare checks and other information: 707-268-2500.