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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

A STRUGGLING TOWN

Trona sits at the edge of a dry lake from which various companies have extracted minerals such as borax and soda ash for over a century, and its neighborhoods are roughly planned around four plants, all connected by long, winding Trona Road.

In the 1950s, it had the makings of any respectable town: bowling alleys, a Fox movie theater, a hospital, a large pool. At its height, it had 6,000 people.

But Trona's fortunes soured as the Navy expanded its China Lake station and nearby Ridgecrest grew. Mining jobs became scarcer; many residents grumble that the current plant owners, Nirma Ltd., are based in India and don't care about their well-being like previous bosses did.

The population has declined dramatically, along with the aesthetics; abandoned homes litter the already parched landscape. On the way into town, someone spray-painted a sign advertising a San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department substation with the face of a pig.

"The town is not too good right now," said 80-year-old Gail Austin, who has lived in Trona nearly his entire life and retired in 2000 as a Searles Valley Minerals plant manager.

 

"There is a bit of a drug class," admitted Larry Cox, pastor at First Baptist Church of Searles Valley, which had to cancel its 65th anniversary celebration after the roof of its fellowship hall caved in.

"It's gone from being a great town where we had everything to one where we only have ourselves," said Ralph "Zeb" Haleman, who was eight stories up at the main minerals plant when the second quake hit.

People had tried to rally community spirit in recent years. The nonprofit Trona Care has bought abandoned houses to tear them down. There were plans for a new park, redeveloped apartments. A Family Dollar opened in 2015.

It hasn't been open since Thursday.

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