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Ridgecrest got most of the attention, but tiny Trona was hit even harder by last week's quakes

Gustavo Arellano, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

TRONA, Calif. -- Under the shade of a salt cedar tree, next to a shipping container and near a sign that said "Prayer Changes Things," the Byrds of Trona had camped out overnight and planned to for the foreseeable future.

A sleeping bag was laid out on the patchy grass. Bags of chips and candies surrounded a basket of green apples and fruit on a picnic table. The Byrds -- mother Kay; father Fred; sisters Karen and Cynthia Thompson; and the latter's daughter, Brooke -- were trying to re-create a household in the wake of two major earthquakes. A magnitude 6.4 foreshock on Thursday, then a magnitude 7.1 rumbler the following evening had wrecked their town of 2,000 and left them scared.

They refused to return to their home of 21 years.

"The first one was devastating," said Karen, as her niece played with Littlest Pet Shop dolls on a sleeping bag. "The second one was terrifying. And they say a bigger one might come. They were right about the second one, so why risk it?"

Across Trona, an unincorporated community of 2,000 on the edge of Death Valley long mythologized in California for its desolate location and tough character (the local high school football team is one of the few, possibly the only, in the United States to play on an all-dirt field), residents are still cleaning up in the wake of the quakes.

And while it's hard enough to live here even in the best of conditions, many Tronans say they now face a reckoning about their future.

 

The twin temblors cracked the very foundations of the town. A chimney stack at the Searles Valley Minerals plant, long Trona's economic lifeblood, partially toppled. Graves caved in at the local cemetery. The sign at the only park crumbled. At Esparza Family Restaurant, where locals gather at 5:30 in the morning every day, a massive fracture blights its outside mural.

Water is inaccessible. Electricity is spotty. Dozens of homes have broken walls, split driveways or interiors that look like one of the hard winds that regularly sweep through town blew right through them. As of Sunday afternoon, cars still needed escorts in and out of Trona on Highway 178 from Ridgecrest, about a half-hour drive away, because of a phalanx of construction crews placing new asphalt.

Even the sulfur stench that usually pervades the air in Trona is more noticeable by its absence. The Searles Valley Minerals plant is shut down.

"If they don't get up the mine," Kay said, "the town is finished."

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