TRONA, Calif. – The biggest earthquake to hit California in two decades chose one of smallest, hardscrabble towns in the state as a prime target.
Every bit as much as Ridgecrest about 30 miles away, Trona, a town struggling to halt its downward decline, bore the brunt of the two-fisted earthquake – first a 6.4 magnitude punch on the Fourth of July, then a giant 7.1 magnitude blow Friday night, with many large aftershocks in between.
Rock slides closed roads, cutting off the population of about 1,500. Electricity was lost, then restored. Drinking water was lost and is being trucked in as temperatures hover in the 90s.
To many residents of tiny Trona, the quake was a knockout. Even if they escaped the toppled chimneys, broken kitchen crockery – or worse – of their neighbors, the town's residents are left with streets and sidewalks with webs of cracks that look from above like so many spider veins.
Even before the quake, Trona was a city that appeared to be hanging by its fingernails, beholden to a single processing plant, Searles Valley Minerals, that makes products such as soda ash and borax. More than a century old, the plant is still the reason the town exists. Saturday, the post-quake condition of the sprawling facility was yet to be disclosed. A security officer guarding the plant said he couldn't comment.
"It's tragic," said Margaret Brush, who, at 91, claims to be Trona's oldest lifelong resident. "I hope this is not the end."
Before the quake, the town's more active citizens were trying to stage a civic comeback that would include a lush new park, community center and a cleanup campaign called "Trona Care." Residents turned several buildings into museums celebrating the city's colorful past through borax and other minerals, a direct connection to Death Valley about 80 miles away by car.
It would be no easy comeback. Many of the Trona area's homes are abandoned – windowless hulks stripped of anything usable. Residents said that although they have many wonderful neighbors, they have been besieged by squatters and that sometimes empty houses are torched. The air around the plant is pungent with sulfur.
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Those who remain said they stay in Trona because it's a bargain. Mike Ashford, 57, arrived after he retired from the military. He said houses can be bought in Trona or next-door Argus for as little as $15,000.
The quake created a crisis for some residents living on fixed incomes or the margins of society.
Saturday morning, Jamie Acevedo, 42, sat outside her home with son Jeremy Chute, 17, and daughter Sammy Chute, 15, their dogs, Misha and Petey, and their cats, Aries and Kiki. They're moving because the quake destroyed their home, knocking it off its foundation.
"I didn't expect my home to come out from under me," Acevedo said.
The family was so spooked by the experience that they camped out in the front yard Friday night. They hope to hitch a ride to live outside Trona with relatives, uncertain whether they can return.
Trucker Randy Witherell, 60, has no plans to leave. He loves Trona and his home, built in 1917 to house company executives, and still kept cool by asbestos shingles. He has researched its history and can produce articles with pictures of the home from its heyday.
But the quake took its toll. The brick deck for the patio buckled. Tremors opened a hole around the gas meter, which Witherell was having inspected. He pointed to where the quake created undulations in the road in front of his house and recalled how the temblor was so powerful that it moved his truck 3 feet. His biggest problem is the chimney.
"The whole top of the chimney came off," Witherell said. "If we have another quake, I am not going to have a house."
As a community, Trona is reeling from damage to its Old Guest House Museum, a former apartment across the street from a mineral plant that depicts the town's early mining days. Though the exhibits appeared to be largely intact, despite some items being knocked to the floor, the exterior has some major damage. Besides gaping cracks in the concrete apron, there's a 5-inch chasm that runs along its eastern side. On the western side, some bricks were knocked out of a mural depicting the town's history.
Debra Wright, 64, who threw herself into civic activities since retiring from a job at the nearby China Lake military installation, stopped by to commiserate with museum volunteers.
"We're devastated. We could lose this building," Wright said. She lamented that the quake hit as the town was on an upswing in a burst of pride.
"We've been working so hard to rebuild," she said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trona, California, was trying to bounce back. Then an earthquake hit. Then a bigger one.