It has been 12 months since two earthquakes shook Ridgecrest and the surrounding area to its core. Residents have gradually adjusted to the new normal, coming to terms with the fact that returning to the way things were before just isn’t possible. The region has been hit with thousands of aftershocks over the past year, and each time a phone beeps in alarm or a boom sounds in the distance, the city braces itself for another big one.
So far that hasn’t come.
Instead, the city has been hit with another catastrophe, one that many say has caused more damage than the magnitude 6.4 and 7.1 earthquakes that shook the region on July 4 and 5 of last year.
The coronavirus may be impacting the entire world, but the pandemic has struck Ridgecrest at a particularly vulnerable time. For the second Independence Day in a row, celebrations have been curtailed due to unforeseen circumstances. And for Ridgecrest, a city that has sprung up around a state-of-the-art Navy base, the loss could sting more than in other areas.
But far worse than any loss of a celebration is the sense of unknowing that has come with the pandemic. At least with an earthquake, there was a clear path forward.
“There isn’t anything fixable about this. The earthquake, we could recover from. We could fix what we had to. We could fix what we were able to with grants and with help and hundreds and hundreds of people,” said Ridgecrest Mayor Peggy Breeden. “How do you deal with a pandemic? We don’t have a process to follow. You’ve got to do the best you can.”
On the morning of June 24, the people of Ridgecrest were shaken once again by a magnitude 5.8 earthquake that struck 80 miles to the north, near Lone Pine in Inyo County. While the community has grown used to the rumblings caused by small aftershocks, the strength of this quake rekindled old fears.
Jamie Callahan, an office manager for the Ridgecrest Chamber of Commerce, was attending a local job fair when the shaking started. She described the fear rippling through the crowd as everyone realized what was happening.
“They looked really nervous, just that dead stark look on their faces,” she said. “That fear isn’t gone.”
Callahan still vividly remembers the two major earthquakes from last year. The first struck while she was having a Fourth of July barbecue with her family. While the first was “pretty scary,” the second, which occurred at 8:19 p.m., was almost incomparable.
“It was just the crackling of the earth. The way it was lifting you off the ground and knocking you down. It was pretty violent,” she said, adding that telephone poles bounced off her house during the quake and her collection of antique bottles shattered. “It was just really hard to imagine that everything was coming down, crumbling, and not being able to get out the door and find something to get under.”
A complete reckoning of the damage caused by both earthquakes has not yet happened. In Ridgecrest, most of the earthquake’s devastation was limited to tens of thousands of cracks that have sprouted in the roads and buildings of the city.
“Most of the damage, 98 percent, was cracks in walls,” said Ridgecrest Public Works Director Bard Lower. “Things that when you have structures built around windows and doors, they don’t want to move, and when the rest of the house is moving, you get cracks.”
He said 46 miles of cracks had been identified in Ridgecrest’s major roads. Over the last year, some of those cracks have grown to be inches wide. The city is in the process of filling in those cracks, but Lower acknowledged long-term damage had nevertheless been done to local roads.
Still, by many accounts, the city got off easy. Many of its buildings were built after the state strengthened earthquake codes, leaving most structures resilient to even large quakes. However, several older mobile homes were thrown from their foundations during the earthquakes, and about 80 buildings were deemed unfit for habitation.
Rebecca Graves, an administrative analyst for the Ridgecrest Public Works Department, hopes the true extent of last year’s earthquakes is not lost.
“A lot of people lost everything,” she said. “Most people had some broken things and there was a huge emotional impact. There are still adults and kids who are scared to be in their homes sometimes. There are people who literally moved.”
A ROUGH YEAR
For those who have stayed, the last year has been fraught with challenges. Many business owners have had to shoulder the costs of recovery only to be forced to close by the state’s coronavirus restrictions.
“The first disaster was not quite as big of a deal. It was really easy to jump back in and open and there were still movies being released,” said Kelly Walden, a manager at Ridgecrest Cinemas.
The theater became one of the worst-hit buildings in Ridgecrest after the roof above one of its showrooms collapsed. Although the roof has been repaired, the pandemic halted the work that needed to be done to clean up the inside of the damaged room.
“I can see this being a much more challenging year than last year was,” Walden said. “And I can see this year being probably challenging for a long time to come.”
For Flight Line Tap Room, which was in the process of starting up last July, the last 12 months have been particularly challenging. After opening for the first time in January, the craft beer haven was forced to close following Gov. Gavin Newsom's order this week.
The business opened up on June 26, only to have the governor close indoor activities in restaurants and bars the next day.
“When customers get that back and forth, you lose them,” said Caiti Whitfield, who owns Flight Line with her husband. “People just say, ‘I’ll go to the grocery stores for beer.’”
Although curbside pickup is available, Whitfield predicted it would be difficult to make ends meet. Despite being “110 percent” stressed about the business’s future, she said she and her husband were determined to remain open.
“All we want to do is ensure our customers is we’re going to be here,” she said. “Failing and closing is not an option for us.”
THE TRUE COST
While many buildings in Ridgecrest may have been built after strong earthquake codes were put in place, the same cannot be said for the Navy base just outside that is roughly 85 percent of the town’s economic base.
According to early estimates, Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake sustained about $5.3 billion worth of damage during the two earthquakes. The shaking caused braces to snap in hangars, bolts in cement walls to come apart and the foundations of major facilities to crack, rendering them unsafe, according to David Janiec, executive director of China Lake Alliance, an advocacy organization that supports the community and mission of the base.
He said that although most of the external damage has been cleaned up, more must be done.
“They put things together with bailing wire and duct tape — except (it was done safely) — and they are in temporary facilities," he said. "They are doing workarounds, but you’ve got to fix it for the long term."
A big show of support came from Congress, which has proved to be dedicated to repairing the base. In December, legislators approved about $3 billion for repairs, which could result in up to 1,500 workers descending in the nearby area to fix the damage. Ridgecrest officials are considering a plan to build temporary housing to hold all of the workers.
The unprecedented investment leaves Janiec and others optimistic about the future of the town.
“What’s incredible about this is that when this is all done, China Lake will be one of the most modern (Department of Defense) laboratories and test centers in the nation,” said Scott O’Neil, executive director of the Indian Wells Economic Development Corp. “That’s kind of one of the silver linings of all this.”
Janiec likes to refer to the investment in a different way.
"The community and the base are the dog that caught the pickup truck,” he says.
Now, all the community has to do is take advantage of the catch.
Evadne Wright, a major in the local chapter of the Salvation Army, said the earthquakes brought her closer to her neighbors, even if it was under strange circumstances.
“It was like a street party because there were neighbors that I did not know,” she said of the night of the second quake. “We all introduced ourselves out in the middle of the road because we were all too rattled to be in the house.”
The connectedness has stuck with Ridgecrest for the last 12 months. Residents have been known to repeat the mantra “Ridgecrest Strong,” as if to remind themselves to keep fighting. They helped each other out during the earthquake, and now they are helping each other get through the coronavirus.
“We’ve got an amazing community here in Ridgecrest,” Wright said. “They come out and they support everything. Now, people that would have been some of our donors last year are the ones who are needing to be assisted. So that shows what you give out comes back to you.”
But for Mayor Breeden, the worries persist even as she witnesses the strength in the city.
She has worries about the businesses within the city that will not make it through the forced shutdowns, and about how the people employed by those businesses might fare. However, she said the repairs that were going to take place at the base, and the hordes of workers who would come to the city to spend money in support of local businesses, made her optimistic for the future. And, of course, she mentioned Ridgecrest’s now-famous resiliency, including the city’s willingness to unite in the face of adversity.
“Will we have some issues we’re going to have to deal with? Absolutely, but we are OK,” she said. “The community came together and saw the need for working together and making it happen. We could have simply said ‘What are we doing this for?’ But we didn’t, because we are a community.”