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Northern California town without power and water, but keeps spirit after quake

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Penny Dunaway, middle, hands out water to a man after an earthquake in Rio Dell, Calif., Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022. A strong earthquake shook a rural stretch of Northern California early Tuesday, jolting residents awake, cutting off power to 70,000 people, and damaging some buildings and a roadway, officials said. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)
A person, who identified themselves as Michelle, sweeps the street from broken glass following an earthquake in Rio Dell, Calif., Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022. (Santiago Mejia /San Francisco Chronicle via AP)

RIO DELL, Calif. (AP) — Outside the Dollar General, the store manager ticked off the items she had to share with families trying to jumpstart their lives after an earthquake jolted them from their beds and cut off the town’s water and power.

“Batteries or candles?” a worker asked a woman toting a toddler on her hip, and handed the child a plastic candy cane filled with sweets.

Just days before Christmas in Rio Dell, the former lumber town is grappling with the aftermath of early Tuesday’s magnitude 6.4 earthquake that injured at least 17 people, shook homes off foundations, damaged water systems and left thousands without electricity — some for more than a day.

Along this stretch of Northern California’s coast, earthquakes are common, and people talk about them much like the weather. But the one that shook people from their homes in the town of 3,500 was different to many who found themselves tossed violently from their beds and stumbling around in the dark of night in search of safety.

When his house began to shake, Chad Sovereign ran into his 10-year-old son Jaxon’s room, grabbed him, and dove under a door frame. The brick chimney collapsed, pulling the wall with it and leaving a gaping hole in their home.

“It felt like the end of the world,” Sovereign said. “I was telling him I love him. I didn’t say goodbye to him, (but) in my head I was. I was just telling him, ‘I love you, I love you, I love you,’ over and over.”

Sovereign said the family lost water and power with the quake, but luckily they could remain in their home. They filled up their bathtub with whatever water was left before the shutoff and used it to flush the toilets.

The quake was centered in nearby Ferndale, about 210 miles northwest of San Francisco and near the Pacific coast. The area is known for its redwood forests, scenic mountains and the three-county Emerald Triangle’s legendary marijuana crop — as well as the Mendocino Triple Junction, a geologic region where three tectonic plates meet.

Scenes of panic played out before dawn Tuesday inside homes in Rio Dell, and hours later, many were still on edge. When the shaking settled, many ran outside in the dead of night to check on neighbors. Well after daybreak, some refused to return home, opting to wait out the aftershocks in their cars for fear of flying objects and to power up cellphones and keep warm because there was no electricity.

On Wednesday, the community fire station was turned into a drive-thru hub. Residents pulled up their cars and had water loaded into their trunks, while a local food truck handed out tacos and burritos courtesy of World Central Kitchen. Other volunteers propped up folding tables and gave out apples, peaches, bagels and canned food. One driver ran out of gas on his way through and had to have his truck pushed off to the side.

About 5,500 people remained without power and 3,400 without water as of Wednesday afternoon, according to Pacific Gas & Electric and Humboldt County authorities.

What was once a bustling lumber town with shops in the 1970s is today a small, humble community made up of retirees, commuters and renters. When a nearby mill went bankrupt and a major thoroughfare moved, Rio Dell became a shadow of its former self, residents said. But it remains a place where people know each other and when reeling from disaster they can go to City Hall and seek advice on who can replace their broken windows — and get it, too.

Outside Dollar General, store manager Cassondra Stoner said she was told she could distribute water, batteries and candles but to hold off on other items until they could be inspected — something she couldn’t always do.

“I couldn’t help myself, and I gave somebody one ibuprofen and some baby diapers because I am not going to let a kid go without diapers,” she said.

The Dollar General is the main grocery in Rio Dell, replacing an Old West-themed mini golf course. There’s also a hardware store and a pizza place in a town used to quakes knocking things off shelves and causing damage to business inventory, locals said, but rarely so much to people’s homes and spirits.

“If you complain about one less than a 4-point-something or other, you’re a weenie,” said Sharon Wolff, editor of the Rio Dell Times local news website. ”We see news reports that this place had a 3.6, and it’s like, ‘Oh, please.’ ”

Rio Dell is the community hardest hit by the quake, though most residents didn’t see major structural damage to their homes.

Ferndale, which draws tourists to its picturesque Victorian Village, also remained without power, and a key bridge to the community was shut down. But shopkeepers hoped to bounce back once the lights come back on, hopefully soon, said Marc Daniels, owner of Mind’s Eye Manufactory and Coffee Lounge.

“We know how bad it could have been,” said Daniels, whose shop occupies a two-story Victorian. “We feel like we sort of dodged a bullet this time.”

About 12 people were reported as suffering injuries, including a broken hip and head wound, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office said at a news conference Tuesday. Two people died — an 83-year-old and a 72-year-old — because they couldn’t get timely care for medical emergencies during or just after the quake.

More than half of the 72,000 Humboldt County customers who lost electricity when the quake struck had power restored by evening that day.

Boil water advisories were issued for Rio Dell and parts of Fortuna because of damaged water systems. In Rio Dell, portable toilets were set up downtown.

Nathan Scheinman, 24, said he hunkered down under four blankets but could barely sleep through the cold with the shock of the quake repeating in his mind. He has no gas, water or power, and he has to drive to a usable bathroom. Right now, Scheinman said he doesn’t care much about Christmas, and is trying to help people who come into the hardware store where he works with whatever he can in their time of need.

“I am more caring about trying to be there for people,” he said. “I think in the Christmas spirit I want to be there for people the best way I can.”

City Manager Kyle Knopp said 15 homes were severely damaged and deemed uninhabitable because of the quake. It wasn’t immediately known how many residents were displaced, he said, because in a place like Rio Dell most have friends or family who have taken them in — limiting the fallout from an unusually strong quake in this quake-prone town.

“It surpassed the fun part of an earthquake and became scary,” Knopp said.

Taxin reported from Orange County, Calif. Associated Press writer John Antczak contributed from Los Angeles.