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Small California town bands together after major earthquakes

Updated July 7, 2019 - 10:19 pm

TRONA, Calif. — In this tiny and isolated desert settlement with survival tied to a potash mining company, an Americana spirit flashes in its people despite the town’s severe socioeconomic struggles.

When Searles Valley Minerals conducted significant layoffs in 1982, the self-sufficient community on the route to Death Valley National Park was devastated and, over the next nearly four decades, reduced to a skeleton of its former self.

“It’s never been the same since then,” said resident Zana Eisenhour, whose retired husband worked at the plant like many in Trona, an unincorporated community about 25 miles northeast of Ridgecrest.

So after two major earthquakes struck nearby, residents here — upset with early media coverage focused on Ridgecrest — wondered aloud whether they may again be forgotten.

“This is the first time that we’ve been acknowledged at this magnitude,” said Julia Doss, president of Trona Care, a local community group collecting and assisting drop-offs of food, water and necessity items on Sunday.

Following Thursday’s 6.4-magnitude earthquake, Trona’s roughly 1,800 residents were left without power and water. It was momentarily restored. Then a 7.1-magnitude temblor hit Friday night. Both quakes were felt in Las Vegas, a nearly four-hour drive from Trona.

Since then emergency crews have been working on a fix. By early afternoon Sunday, Southern California Edison officials announced power was back. A broken line carrying water from Ridgecrest to Trona along Highway 178 was still causing headaches, and a boil-water order was in effect. A water station manned by emergency response teams and National Guard members at Trona High School offered temporary relief as officials issued a high heat advisory.

Still, residents reported homes flooded by snapped water-heater supply lines and chimneys that collapsed. Rooms are off-limits until a blockade of tipped hutches and scattered household items are cleared. Without water for swamp coolers — many cannot afford air conditioning — some camp outside to escape nighttime heat and the persistent clutter.

“This is going to be a several-month endeavor,” Doss said, “I would suggest, at a minimum.”

But in the face of adversity, the community has rallied together, which residents say is simply a reflection of its closeness that goes overlooked by most outsiders. San Bernardino County 1st District Supervisor Robert Lovingood, whose district includes Trona, described the town as “really Americana” with “an incredible sense of pride.”

“People know their neighbors,” he said. “It’s still where kids listen to adults, and adults correct kids even if they’re not their own.”

Lovingood toured the damage Saturday amid a “very heavy response” from local officials. The response included Victor Valley Transit Authority busing residents without transportation to the American Red Cross shelter in Ridgecrest.

He relayed that the entire valley had been cloaked in dust from boulders and dirt falling from mountains.

“It’s amazing that there wasn’t serious injury,” Lovingood said. “If that would have been a major city, if that would have been Las Vegas — yeah.”

Long after parachuting journalists skip town and even as experts downgrade the likelihood of a more serious earthquake soon rocking the region, residents in Trona will have no choice but to contend with the aftermath.

“There’s enough damage to go around,” said Todd Owens, a lifelong resident and member of the Christian Fellowship of Trona, where Trona Care operated Sunday. People as far away as Las Vegas and Visalia had dropped off goods.

Eisenhour, 65, a member of the Trona Municipal Advisory Council, agreed with his sentiment.

“We’ve never had anything like this before,” she said.

Too much in her home was toppled over to be livable Sunday, so she and her husband planned to spend another night in their RV parked in the front yard. But she underscored that they did not face a lonely predicament.

“We’re not the only ones,” she said. “Everyone I’ve talked to is in the same boat.”

The earthquakes had knocked many of their household items to the floor. A heap of nonperishable food was bundled in front of a larger-than-usual pantry. It comes in handy since the nearest grocery store is in Ridgecrest. Eisenhour planned to donate much of it.

“Anytime people are in need,” she said, “we take care of it.”

Contact Shea Johnson at sjohnson@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @Shea_LVRJ on Twitter.

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