A magnitude 6.4 earthquake was reported Tuesday morning at 2:34 a.m. 11 miles from Fortuna, Calif.
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Northern California towns tally earthquake damage as residents still lack power, water

More than 14,000 people were still without electricity and 3,000 without water across Humboldt County a day after a 6.4 earthquake hit the region.

Thousands of residents across Humboldt County were still without power Wednesday morning, more than 24 hours after a magnitude 6.4 earthquake rocked this region of Northern California, leaving two people dead, 17 injured and countless displaced.

About 14,560 people were without electricity on Wednesday morning, a majority of whom are in Fortuna, Rio Dell and Ferndale, said Megan McFarland, spokesperson for Pacific Gas & Electric. That’s down from 71,000 immediately after the quake, which struck just after 2:30 a.m. Tuesday offshore, about 7½ miles southwest of Ferndale, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

At least two people, both of them older residents, died because of medical emergencies related to the earthquake, according to the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office. The New York Times reported the victims were 72 and 83. At least 17 people sustained injuries, including broken bones and head trauma, largely from furniture or appliances toppling over, officials said.

Ferndale, Fortuna and Rio Dell were among the hardest-hit communities, Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, said at a news conference Tuesday.

About 3,400 residents in Rio Dell were without water Wednesday, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Authorities issued a boil water advisory for Rio Dell and the following Fortuna neighborhoods: Forest Hills Drive, Newell Drive, Valley View Drive, Boyden Lane, Scenic Drive and Cypress Loop Road. Residents are instructed not to drink the water without boiling it first for at least one minute and to use boiled or bottled water for food preparation.

The Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday morning.

State officials applauded the ShakeAlert early warning system that they said broadcast an alert 10 seconds in advance of the earthquake’s shaking to the mobile phones of some 3 million people in Northern California, giving residents the opportunity to drop, cover and hold or get to a place of safety.

“The system did operate as we had hoped,” Ghilarducci said.

But residents of the region known as “earthquake country” were still rattled, particularly those along the quake’s fault, who almost uniformly described the event as the most violent and scary jolt they’ve experienced in decades. Pictures across social media and shared with The Times showed homes with walls and ceilings caved in, cabinets toppled over, shelves dismantled, and broken glass, dishes and other items covering the floors.

Critical infrastructure, including water lines and gas lines, were also damaged by the quake. At least 30 residences and one commercial structure have been determined structurally unsafe, according to an update from the Sheriff’s Office. The total cost of damages has not yet been determined.

Fernbridge, a Humboldt County landmark that was built across the Eel River in 1911 to connect Ferndale to U.S. 101 via State Route 211, was fractured in several places and closed for repairs, but it was expected to reopen as early as Wednesday, said Myles Cochrane, public information officer with the California Department of Transportation’s District 1, which includes Humboldt County. The damage was mostly cosmetic, and repair work underneath the bridge and to its sides will likely continue even after traffic resumes, he said.

Tuesday’s earthquake was a “big one,” said Lucy Jones, a research associate at the seismological lab of Caltech and founder of the Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society. But it’s not just an earthquake’s magnitude that determines the potential for damage: It’s also where people and towns are with respect to the quake’s fault, she said.

Though the epicenter — or the earthquake’s starting point — was just offshore, it ruptured along a fault onshore and traveled northeast. The aftershock distribution for Tuesday’s event measured about 12 miles, or 20 kilometers, which is the likely length of the fault, Jones said.

“That means you’ve got 20 kilometers’ worth of people potentially on top” of the fault, Jones said. She added that damage stems from a combination of how much shaking occurs and the strength of local and critical infrastructure.

Diana McIntosh, a Humboldt County resident for about 65 of her 69 years, said she knew immediately to duck for cover. McIntosh was asleep when she heard something crash in the front of her Eureka apartment, and then the lights went out. She started screaming with the covers over her.

“I’d never reacted like this to an earthquake before,” she said. “It’s been scary, but this one was really much louder and noisier.”

McIntosh said that a door to a hutch containing 1900s-era glassware broke off and her china was destroyed.

“I thought I was going to be able to pass that down to my daughter and grandchildren, but this being Humboldt County, you can’t always tell,” she said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for Humboldt County, granting it state disaster resources, requesting federal assistance and easing access to unemployment benefits.

The State Operations Center was activated to coordinate the response with local and tribal governments and to provide resources.

The governor has directed state agencies and departments to take “appropriate action as necessary” in order to support local communities, according to the statement.

Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal declared a local emergency, a move that allows the county to seek state and federal reimbursement for repairs and other costs, officials said.

Arcata Mayor Sarah Schaefer said that the city faired “pretty well” during the quake compared to Eureka, Ferndale, Fortuna and Rio Dell.

“We didn’t really have any damage to water and gas infrastructure,” she said. “A few broken windows around town. I’ve seen pictures of people’s stuff off the walls but nothing major in Arcata.”

Schaefer said that power was restored to Arcata residents Tuesday evening.

“Our buildings have fared pretty well,” she added. “We had a building inspector doing inspections, but I believe we sent them to Fortuna to help them because they were way more overwhelmed with damage than we were.”

Earthquake experts have pointed out that temblors are common in the region for several reasons.

Humboldt County is a hotbed of seismic activity because of its location near the Mendocino triple junction, a complex geological area where several plates — the Gorda, the Pacific and the North American — intersect and has been responsible for the overwhelming majority of Humboldt’s earthquakes, Lori Dengler, a geophysicist and professor emeritus at Humboldt State University. Tuesday’s epicenter was two miles offshore and likely was on the Gorda plate, officials said.

The county also has numerous faults. Though Tuesday’s earthquake was similar in magnitude to 2021’s jolt, they ruptured differently, Dengler said. Tuesday’s earthquake pushed its energy north, with residents as far as Seattle feeling some vibrations. But the quake appeared weaker south of the epicenter.

She also called the ground acceleration, or how fast the speed of the ground changes, “astounding” and likely to be some of the most intense in the state’s history. A bridge near Rio Dell recorded nearly 1½ times gravitational force, enough to “make you fly into the air a little bit,” she said. It could have produced major damage had the bridge not been built to code.

But earthquakes in the area are often not catastrophic, Dengler said. Humboldt is not a densely packed community of older buildings. Prior to Tuesday, the county recorded only two deaths because of an earthquake back in 1850.

Its rural nature can complicate damage assessment, and solid statistics can take weeks to collect, she said. There aren’t enough local engineers in the area, and access after earthquakes, in Humboldt and elsewhere, can be difficult.

Humboldt County is known for its dense forests, rural terrain, fog-covered seaside towns and 110-mile shoreline. With a population of about 136,000 residents, the county is home to more than 160,000 acres of coastal redwoods and encompasses 2.3 million acres of land, 80% of which is used for timberland and recreational purposes.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.