Town of Trona, hit by huge earthquakes 2 years ago, struggling to recover

TRONA, Calif. (KABC) -- It's been just over two years since 6.4 and 7.1 earthquakes and numerous aftershocks hit the tiny town of Trona, California, located in northwest San Bernardino County, just southwest of Death Valley National Park.

The town was already experiencing a declining population before the quakes, roughly 1,500 residents, and now it's even less.

"We just want to survive. We want to get back to the way it was before the earthquake," said Priscilla Benadom, a lifelong resident of Trona.

Instead of rebuilding, businesses have packed up like the Family Dollar Store, the only market in town which only had limited offerings.

"They were red tagged after the earthquake and they pulled up stakes and left. Nobody has been able to lease that building since," said Benadom.

"Everything was just in shambles. Around here, you see homes that are getting ready to fall after the earthquake, then you come back out and the building has fallen. We still need a lot of help here," said Linda Medina, who also lived in Trona most of her life.

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Most of the high school was red tagged forcing students to attend classes at the elementary school. Some say it would cost more to fix the school than to knock it down and build a new one.

"Repairing that damage is going to take about $55 million and the Trona Unified School District unfortunately just doesn't have the money to do that," said Congressman Jay Obernolte, who represents Trona in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Obernolte says he's still fighting to get Trona the support and funding it needs to recover from the earthquakes, but blames FEMA's outdated formula for disaster declarations as a reason why the community hasn't gotten big money from the federal government.

"Unless you have a disaster big enough to qualify economically, then you can't get FEMA assistance. I think that that's really regrettable because if you look at a small community like Trona, located in a vast state like California, it's almost impossible even if the entire town was leveled in a disaster, it's almost impossible for it to be qualified to be declared a disaster," said Obernolte.

With so many homes red tagged, it's been hard for Linda Medina to find a new place after hers was deemed unsafe. Medina has been living with her mother and tells eyewitness the entire community is still on edge.

"We hear an aftershock or the train that's right here, people go oh it's an earthquake. A lot of people didn't put their stuff back on the walls. They kept in boxes waiting for the big one. they're still like that now," said Medina.

Another thing that's hurt Trona was the pandemic, which has made it difficult to fundraise. As the population shrinks, the town's future is uncertain.

"I don't want to see it go down. My grandparents lived here forever. My grandfather worked at the plant for years, and my stepdad worked there for 35 years. My mother still lives here. She went to kindergarten here. So, I don't want to see it go down. I want to see it replenish itself," said Medina.

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