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Thousands refuse to go home after 7.2 quake

April 6, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
Thousands of people camped in cars, soccer fields and vacant lots Tuesday as aftershocks from Easter Sunday's big earthquake kept them on edge. About 25,000 people have been displaced by the magnitude-7.2 quake, most voluntarily, said Alfredo Escobedo, civil protection chief for Baja California state. They are mainly in farming villages southwest of the city of Mexicali, near the epicenter.

"Right now, people are sleeping outside because they're afraid," Escobedo said. "They go to work at day and go home, but they don't want to spend the night inside."

He estimated 200 to 300 homes were destroyed in the quake that shook both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, but authorities did not have a precise count. Many of those homes filled with mud and water that seeped up from the ground, he said.

The death count remained at two: a 94-year-old man and an unidentified transient.

Some 700 aftershocks greater than magnitude-2.5 had been recorded since the quake Sunday. The largest in the sequence - a magnitude-5.7 - hit several hours after the main tremor. A magnitude-4.7 shock hit early Tuesday, centered 30 miles south of Guadalupe Victoria.

The canal-laden region of farming villages cracked when the ground shook violently Sunday, spewing water through large crevices in the rich farm soil and cement floors.

That's how the Briseno family watched all seven of their homes sink to ruin on a single block, forcing them to sleep in their cars indefinitely.

"The earth just opened up, like a pencil goes across a sheet of paper, like a stripe goes across the floor," said Diona Garcia Briseno, the oldest of five siblings, who lost a home that she shared with her husband and their two children, 18 and 10.

Garcia Briseno, 38, saw the ground crack and cough up water as she waited out the quake outside her home. After the shaking, she went inside to find that her cement floor was gurgling muddy water from underground. It lasted about six hours.

"It didn't come out with lots of force, but it was constant," she said.

Asphalt buckled on streets all around the Briseno family's tiny farming village of Oaxaca, leaving gaps several feet (meters) wide. Dirt crevices that spouted water can be seen almost everywhere, some dry and some now puddles.

Raul Lepe, 45, pointed to a 30-foot (9-meter) -long opening that ran across a dirt lot and spewed "small volcanoes of water" behind his clothing store. The floor of his home sustained cracks, forcing him to sleep in his pickup truck until an inspector visits.

No one appears to have suffered as much property loss as the Briseno family, whose ancestors were one of the town's early settlers. Cruz Briseno arrived in Oaxaca as a young man shortly after the 1910 Mexican Revolution.

Raquel Briseno, Cruz's daughter, divided the family plot on Avenida Emiliano Zapata, giving a piece each to four children, keeping one for herself and leaving two for her brothers. The small, cinderblock homes on the dirt road are tightly spaced.

Farming has always driven the economy. The men in the Briseno family support their households by working six days a week for the equivalent of about $65 in a region where onions, radishes, asparagus and cucumbers are grown.

Residents of neighboring Guadalupe Victoria, the closest town to the epicenter, are accustomed to earthquakes but nothing prepared them for Sunday's jolt. Some people aren't sure if they'll ever feel safe again.

Sergio Ruiz Escalante, a 51-year-old construction worker, moved his family's beds outside to the back patio to sleep under the stars with his wife and three children. A fence fell outside his home but there was no other visible damage. He doesn't know when he'll sleep inside.

"I need to wait before I can go in with confidence," he said Monday while buying batteries in a variety store where ceiling tiles hung loose and shampoo bottles still littered the floor.

Karla Jaramillo, an elementary school teacher in Guadalupe Victoria, said her school was built about 40 years ago and already survived a big earthquake in 1980.

"I wish the schools would have fallen," said Jaramillo, 30. "I wish the kids didn't have to go inside a damaged building."

Alfredo Soria, a 41-year-old lifelong resident, escaped with minor damage to his home - a damaged brick fence - but he's uneasy about going back. The dwelling across the street was also built around 1960 and was reduced to rubble Sunday, and he's convinced his own home will endure a similar fate when the next quake strikes.

"It's already survived two earthquakes, it's not safe," said Soria, who is sleeping in his pickup with his three children.

The Briseno family doesn't know where to go next. For now, they are sleeping in cars at the town's soccer field. The floors and walls of their homes are severely cracked, and thus uninhabitable. Several of their houses have about a foot (30 centimeters) of water and have sunk several inches (centimeters).

Palmira Briseno, 31, said cracks spewed muddy water in her home.

"It was like there were fountains everywhere," she recalled.

On Monday, about 10 people from the extended family sat under a tent made of wood poles and black plastic tarp, eating chips and chilies. Water that spewed from underground inundates their street.

Garcia's 10-year-old daughter hugged her during an aftershock and fought tears.