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Mexicali gradually returning to normal after earthquake, Mexican officials say

April 5, 2010 | 11:49 am

Much of the nearly completed 4-story parking garage at the Mexicali Civic Center lies in ruins after being shaken apart in the earthquake. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

Normal routines gradually returned Monday to the border city of Mexicali, Mexico, hit hard Easter Sunday by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake felt as far away as Los Angeles and Phoenix, Mexican authorities said.

“Little by little, things are coming back to normal,” said Alejandro Contreras, a spokesman for the state government in Mexicali, a sprawling municipality of almost 1 million situated about 125 miles east of San Diego. “People are nervous, of course, but we are calling for calm and working to restore services.”

The quake left two dead and about 230 injured, none seriously, said Jorge Sanchez Rendon, another government spokesman. Most of the injured had scratches and bruises, he said.

The northbound border into Calexico, Calif., from Mexicali, Mexico, remained closed to automobile traffic Monday morning because of concerns about damage to the U.S. federal building, but people were allowed to walk through checkpoints into the U.S. as aftershocks rattled the region.

Authorities reported a total of 45 collapsed or partially collapsed buildings in Baja California.

Power and water supply was being restored, authorities said, though much of the city seemed without power early Monday and many traffic lights were not functioning. Authorities said the damaged water supply system was improving, but that pressure was low.

Much of the visible damage downtown was from broken glass. People walked on the streets and cars circulated cautiously. Officials said electric power had been restored by mid-morning to 75% of users in Mexicali. Half a dozen electrical sub-stations were being evaluated for damage, authorities said.

Thousands of people slept outside Sunday night as aftershocks shook the city, keeping nerves frayed. Authorities were setting up temporary shelters, especially in rural areas where the quake ruptured irrigation canals and led to extensive flooding.

Mexicali is a major farming center, and irrigation is essential to the industry.

“There is a bit of a psychosis, people are scared, especially with all the aftershocks,” Contreras said. “We’re urging everyone not to panic, to know that help is being provided.”

Authorities stressed that reservoirs were safe and amply supplied and there was no danger that Mexicali or the coastal city of Tijuana would run out of water. A major aqueduct was being evaluated for damage but that should not affect water supply, officials said.

Some major roads, including the Mexicali-Tijuana highway, suffered damage but were still functioning, officials said. Officials were examining roads statewide.

Hundreds of motorists and vacationers returning home after Easter break were stranded between Mexicali and Tecate to the west and San Felipe to the south after running out of gasoline. Gas pumps were crippled by the lack of electricity.

Four shelters were set up in Mexicali for people whose homes were destroyed or who were afraid to sleep inside their homes. Thousands of people slept outside Sunday night as dozens of aftershocks continued to shake. University classes scheduled to resume Monday were suspended.

Baja California Gov. Jose Guadalupe Osuna Millan said patients from Mexicali’s damaged hospital were being treated in tents while crews of inspectors were moving through the city to survey damage.

“Little by little the calm is returning,” Osuna said.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon planned to visit the city Monday afternoon to review the damage personally. Osuna said he planned to ask the president to declare the city a disaster area, thus making it eligible for federal aid.

Although cars were prohibited from crossing north from Mexicali into Calexico, Calif., people walked over the border.

Meantime, a steady stream of cars drove south into Mexicali as residents attempted to check on their loved ones. Phones in Mexico were not working.

In Calexico, downtown merchants could be seen sweeping broken glass and fallen plaster away from their storefronts and covering walkways. Many buildings were red-tagged until officials could inspect them further. Calexico police patrolled the downtown area overnight to watch for looting, but none occurred.

An aftershock hit about 4:12 a.m., causing car alarms to go off all over town, and the cacophony continued for hours.

Traffic was slow Monday morning along westbound Interstate 8 in El Centro as Caltrans checked for problems on the freeway that may have been caused by the earthquake.

-- Tony Perry in Mexicali, Mexico, Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City and Patrick J. McDonnell in Los Angeles

Photo: Much of the nearly completed four-story parking garage at the Mexicali Civic Center lies in ruins after being shaken apart in the earthquake. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

More photos: Baja California earthquake

Find the latest L.A. Now earthquake coverage here, and a map of the Baja California earthquake here.