RIDGECREST — Jim Combs crouched down to peer under his damaged mobile home ripped from its foundation in July by a powerful earthquake that sent it sliding nearly 2 feet away.

The metal jacks holding up the home had collapsed. Steel binding straps failed. His mobile home has been red-tagged since July 5, rendered inhabitable by a 7.1 quake that evening that bounced buildings, caused fires and frayed nerves in this town. The mainshock was felt by 30 million people in Southern California and parts of Nevada, Arizona and Mexico.

More than three months later, on Monday, Oct. 14, Combs, 69, is still waiting for his home to be fixed, sleeping on his porch by day and in his car at night.

RELATED: What you should — and should not — do during an earthquake

The slight man, whose warm smile pokes from behind a Santa Claus-like beard, has no home owner’s insurance, lives on a fixed income and can’t afford the needed home repairs. While volunteers work on finding cash and willing contractors to do the work, he recounts his experience with several “thank you, Lords,” raising eyes skyward while evoking a come-what-may demeanor.

“You just got to live with it — and deal with it,” Combs said Monday, when asked about life in Ridgecrest, where earthquakes swarm literally every day on the active Eastern California Shear Zone — sometimes erupting with the energy of a major quake.

Life lessons from quake country

The people of Ridgecrest, a town of 33,723, and of Trona, 30 miles southeast with a population less than 2,000, suffered the brunt of a 6.4 quake on July 4, a foreshock to the more powerful mainshock that struck around 8 p.m. July 5. With the epicenter of the second, larger quake about 10 miles from Ridgecrest in Kern County, it’s a minor miracle no one was killed or seriously injured, residents say.

RELATED: Ridgecrest aftershock prognosis: They won’t stop for years, and another strong one is possible

The desert’s autumn chill now in the air, residents were returning to normal this week. Can they inform the rest of Southern California about surviving an earthquake in advance of the Great California ShakeOut – this year set for Thursday, Oct. 17 – a day that preaches awareness, protection and a get-ready attitude? Many responded with lessons from their own lives.

“I would suggest to people they get renters insurance. That could’ve really helped me,” said Combs, who rents his mobile home for the past two years after leaving Salinas to escape crime and gang violence. On his aisle of Trousdale Estates, four mobile homes were labeled uninhabitable by city inspectors following the July earthquakes. Another on the next aisle was nearly flattened, abandoned by the owner.

Tina Harry’s mobile home had no gas for a month, she said, forcing her family to cook meals outside. Now, deemed livable but still not fixed, the home slants to the east. While the gas is back on, cooking is still a challenge.

“The pots on the stove keep sliding off,” she said. She’s hoping to get a lower estimate for the repairs and help to pay for them.

Nonprofits step up

Damages from the pair of quakes did not reach a high enough threshold to merit assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), according to Jeanne Young, a volunteer with the Long Term Earthquake Recovery Group, formed by Light House church in town and Altrusa International of the Indian Wells Valley, a nonprofit. Her team goes from home to home, bringing contractors who donate their time along with cash raised by the Lions Club, Rotary Club and local Realtors.

Young’s group has found grant money for residents, she said. In Trona, San Bernardino County has not been as helpful as Kern County, home to Ridgecrest, she said. Yet, she’s found contractors in Trona willing to donate labor. They’ve rebuilt porches, installed stoves and water heaters and done repairs at no cost.

“It is all God. He provides,” said Young, wearing a black “No Fear” T-shirt.

Help comes from nonprofits and faith-based entities from Corona to San Francisco providing volunteers and cash assistance. Most of the damage in the high desert communities near Death Valley National Park occurred in mobile home parks where homes are more susceptible to earth movement. Usually, this affects low-income families and people like Combs and Harry with limited resources whose next step could have been permanent homelessness.

“We have a strong community that raised a lot of money,” said Jamie Callahan, an administrative assistant at the Ridgecrest Chamber of Commerce who was born and raised in town. Callahan lost her rental home in the Cedar Fire of San Diego in 2003.

The Ridgecrest Lions Charity Foundation raised $32,000 and most of that money is going to help mobile home dwellers fix their homes, Ken Echeberry, treasurer, said in a phone interview on Tuesday, Oct. 15. He estimated the group has helped 43 families totaling 117 people.

“Most have restrictive incomes and they don’t have the money to do repairs,” he said.

Businesses work together

The chamber has put on seminars on how to stay in business and help employees. The best example was Searles Valley Minerals, a chemical plant in Trona that suffered damage but whose owner kept paying his employees during the shutdown. The plant has been repaired and recently re-opened, Callahan said.

On a smaller scale, the Ridgecrest Cinemas are showing movies again, despite ongoing repairs to the north side of the building. Long, metal braces held up the walls on Monday.

Shortly after the quake, the chamber brought together Costco and Walmart to form Operation City Serve. Products damaged in the earthquake, from lawnmowers to air mattresses to paint cans, were kept in storage then handed out, Callahan said.

“It was go-back items, you know, stuff slightly damaged. They took all that stuff and instead of throwing it away, stored it and just gave it out for free,” she added.

No effect on San Andreas

The earthquakes in the two high desert cities occurred on the Little Lake Fault Zone, part of the Eastern California Shear Zone, not the San Andreas Fault, explained Susan Hough, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena. The eruptions took place closest to the China Lake Naval Weapons Station, which saw roads separate and buildings damaged. The July 5 quake was 10 times more powerful than its predecessor the day prior, she said.

The quakes originated in an active fault area that continues to produce aftershocks daily, usually with a magnitude less than 3.0. The twin quakes in July neither increase nor decrease the chance of a quake on the San Andreas hitting Los Angeles. The chances of a magnitude 7.0 quake or higher hitting the L.A. basin is 1-in-100 and that hasn’t changed, Hough said.

“It is all random,” she added.

The Great ShakeOut website relies on a July 2017 USGS study that says while the likelihood of a magnitude 6.5 to 7.0 earthquake is lower, the chance of a larger earthquake is higher in Southern California because of new faults being discovered that can rupture together, causing more powerful earthquakes. The 2017 study includes 350 fault sections, way more than the 200 found in a study a decade earlier.

The 2017 study “should also serve as a reminder that California is earthquake country, and residents should always be prepared,” the website warns.

About 10.7 million Californians have signed up to participate in the Great ShakeOut beginning at 10:17 a.m. Thursday. Cerro Coso Community College in Ridgecrest, as well as school districts and government agencies statewide, are among those instructing students, employees and others to participate in the ShakeOut. San Bernardino City Unified School District sites, for example, will practice evacuations in coordination with the district’s Emergency Operations Center.

Nerves, faith and family

Callahan remembers preparing dinner on July 5 with her 18-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son at her Ridgecrest home. She had just finished cleaning up from the smaller July 4 quake, thinking the shaking was over.

“We saw telephone poles bouncing off the buildings behind our house,” she said. Water lines broke, damaging the drywall in her home.

Now, anxiety remains part of daily living in Ridgecrest, she said. She’s learned to keep calm for the sake of her family.

“The hardest part is not screaming,” she said. “I don’t want my children to see me living in fear.”

The July earthquakes brought people together and made the community stronger, Callahan said. Her faith not only settles her nerves but allows her to see the bigger picture.

“It is God’s way of putting us on our knees,” she said.


If the shaking starts …

• Drop, cover and hold on. Drop to the ground. Take cover under a sturdy desk or table and stay there for at least 60 seconds. Don’t run out of buildings. Most injuries occur when someone is moving or from falling debris.

• If driving, pull over to a clear location with no trees or power lines, stop and stay there with your seatbelt fastened until the shaking stops.

Some things to do in advance…

• Identify a safe place under sturdy furniture or against an interior wall in your home; do a “hazard hunt” for items that might fall in your home and secure them.

• Create a personal or family disaster plan: Every member of the family should have a wallet card with essential contact information.

• Keep an earthquake kit in your home with seven days of supplies, including one gallon of water per person per day for three days or, ideally, two weeks.

• Review insurance coverage; consider earthquake insurance.

Source: The Great California ShakeOut

For more information go to earthquakecountry.org.

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