Quake Victims Surprised Damage Wasn't Worse

A fuller picture is emerging of the damage from Sunday's big earthquake along the U.S.-Mexico border. The magnitude 7.2 quake was the strongest the region has seen in decades and was felt across a wide area on both sides of the border. Hardest hit were the cities of Mexicali in Mexico and Calexico in California.

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And aftershocks continue to rattle buildings and nerves in Southern California and Northern Mexico. Sunday's 7.2 earthquake hit hard the border cities of Mexicali in Mexico and Calexico in California. Still, many people are amazed things aren't a lot worse.

NPR's Mandalit del Barco has the latest.

(Soundbite of drilling and hammering)

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Carlos Gonzales and his crew spent yesterday boarding up broken windows in Calexico. We met up with him at one store clearly marked Cerrado - Closed for Business - with an alarm that wouldnt quit. Inside, the light fixtures and ceiling panels were on the floor; so were broken down shelves and mounds of breakfast cereals, shampoos, toilet paper, even flat screen TVs - a huge mess of merchandise.

Mr. CARLOS CONZALES: (Spanish spoken)

DEL BARCO: It looks spectacular and amazing, Gonzales said, in the worst possible way.

When the earthquake hit, he was watching the big soccer match between rival teams Chivas and Americas on TV. Suddenly Calexico and many of the surrounding border towns were without power, water, or telephones. But after a couple of sleepless nights, most services are now returned and the border is getting back to normal, though with a lot of aftershocks.

Mr. GONZALES: (Foreign language spoken)

DEL BARCO: Thanks to God, Gonzales said, this area suffered far less than people in Haiti did during their earthquake.

In fact, Sunday's 7.2 magnitude quake was bigger than Haiti's, but unlike the disaster in Port-au-Prince, the epicenter of Sunday's quake was about 20 miles south of Mexicali in a sparsely populated area. Margarita Mercado(ph), spokesperson for the mayor's office in Mexicali, says buildings in her city are much newer and better constructed with strict building codes.

Ms. MARGARITA MERCADOS (Mayor's Spokesperson): The buildings are built to support the seismic activity, because we live in a region that constantly has movement. This unfortunately was the biggest we've had in 40 years or so.

DEL BARCO: Some of the worst damage was actually in California, in the old downtown section of Calexico, which remains closed. Store buildings there date back to the 1920s. Many sustained serious structural damage and were red-tagged to prevent anyone from going inside. It's devastating for a retail area of discounted tourist shops that already was hurting.

The damage in Mexicali was less concentrated but just as dramatic in places. A multi-story parking structure at city hall collapsed, but it was still under construction, so no cars or people were inside. Mexicali General Hospital suffered damage on its top floors. Patients were evacuated to nearby clinics and some were treated by doctors in makeshift tents. Maria Rosario Louise(ph) waited outside for her 15-year-old daughter to have a C-section.

Ms. MARIA ROSARIO LOUISE: (Spanish spoken)

DEL BARCO: I'm scared the walls might fall on her as she gives birth, says Louise. Behind her in line to visit his dying wife, Luis Alonzo Gonzales(ph) described what it was like inside during the earthquake.

Mr. LUIS ALONZO GONZALES: (Spanish spoken)

DEL BARCO: Everything was moving - the electrical cables, the medicines, everything, he said. I asked God to calm me down.

(Soundbite of music)

DEL BARCO: Last night, music spilled onto the streets in Colonia Roma, one of Mexicali's neighborhoods. Here many mom and pop restaurants and pharmacies are once again open. Thirty-five-year-old Janet Gonzales(ph) was having dinner out at one of the taco stands. She says Mexicali has lived through other quakes, but none like this. Now she's following advice from the local government officials. Until the aftershocks subside, she's sleeping with her family outside in a tent or in their car.

Ms. JANET GONZALES: (Spanish spoken)

DEL BARCO: We're expecting an even bigger earthquake, she said, worried about the rumors still circulating. You just never know.

Mandalit Del Barco, NPR News, Mexicali.

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