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Northern California city assesses damage after major earthquake

January 10, 2010 |  8:02 am

Natural Foods storeOfficials in Eureka, Calif., this morning were assessing damage from a magnitude-6.5 earthquake that rocked California's northern coast on Saturday.

There appeared to be no life-threatening injuries from the quake. But officials said perhaps dozens suffered mostly minor injuries.

The Eureka Times-Standard reported that several people were taken by ambulance from the Bayshore Mall, which was closed because of the temblor. Their condition was not immediately known.

The quake snapped power lines, toppled chimneys, knocked down traffic signals, shattered windows and prompted the evacuation of at least one apartment building.

The temblor struck at 4:27 p.m. about 33 miles southwest of the coastal city of 26,000 and was powerful enough to send people running into the streets, some fearing a tsunami.

The quake, centered offshore and about 13 miles deep, was felt as far north as central Oregon, as far south as Santa Cruz and as far east as Reno, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

"It was a monstrous one," said Phil Burns, owner of Mity Nice Bakery, Cafe and Restaurant in Eureka, which is about 80 miles south of the Oregon border. "Usually, they're sharp, but this one was very wiggly. It was rolling in all directions."

In the southern Eureka fishing village of King Salmon, the 10 seconds of shaking broke power lines and knocked out electricity throughout the isolated seaside community of about 750 people.

When it stopped, people gathered in the street. Some were visibly distraught. Shouts of "You all right?" were heard. Then car engines began revving as residents raced to the only access road to the closest higher ground, the 150-foot-high Bell Hill, in case of a tsunami, said William Bowman, a resident. None materialized, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Residents of Northern California coastal communities have reason to worry about tsunamis. In 1964, a magnitude-9.2 earthquake off the Alaskan coast sent a catastrophic tsunami to Crescent City, north of Eureka, killing 11 people.

On Saturday, 25,000 customers lost power, according to Pacific Gas & Electric Co. Water and gas lines also were disrupted.

Frayed nerves were evident throughout the Humboldt County region as dusk fell. Rooms at Mad River Community Hospital in Arcata, 15 miles north of Eureka, were in the dark, and patients in robes were sitting in the hallway. Generators provided only enough power to keep vital machinery working, said nursing supervisor Annie Conkler.

"Everyone's shaken but fine," she said, adding that there were no patients with quake-related injuries coming into the emergency room.

At Myrtle Avenue Pet Center on Hubbard Lane in Eureka, owner Melanie Noe spent the evening picking up shampoo bottles and shattered dog bowls. The only other casualty was the cats' nerves, she said.

On the other side of town, lamps and dishes crashed down at Antiques and Goodies, causing a couple to run out of the store while two women took cover under a table. "We've been through a lot of earthquakes, but I can't recall there ever being any this bad," said store owner Sandra Hall.

To the south, floodlights fell at the Humboldt County Fairgrounds, and windows shattered in Ferndale. Farther south, in Redway, shoppers abandoned their carts in a grocery store and raced to their cars.

State officials said authorities in the county had not asked for additional assistance from Sacramento.

"It looks like they will be able to handle it on their own," said Kelly Huston, a spokesman for the California Emergency Management Agency. "Our big concern now is aftershocks."

At least 10 aftershocks were reported in the hours after the temblor, the strongest of them registering 4.2.

Richard Allen, a UC Berkeley seismologist, said the area where the earthquake occurred was in the Mendocino Triple Junction, at the meeting of three tectonic plates: the Pacific, North American and Juan de Fuca. It is one of the most seismically active parts of the San Andreas fault system that runs through the state.

"Although 6.5 is a large event, it is not uncommon there by any means," said Richard Buckmaster, a U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist.

The last major quakes in the offshore region, Buckmaster said, were magnitude 7.2 and 6.6 temblors in June 2005.

-- Ruben Vives, Patrick McDonnell and Ari B. Bloomekatz

Photo: Eureka Times-Standard