Mexico-California border towns shaken after quake

MEXICALI, Mexico Mon Apr 5, 2010 4:47pm EDT

1 of 18. California Supermarket employee Nicholas Flores places groceries back on shelves after they fell off following a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in downtown Calexico, California, April 5, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Fred Greaves

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MEXICALI, Mexico (Reuters) - Dozens of aftershocks following a big earthquake rattled the Mexico-Californian border area on Monday as families too scared to return to damaged homes milled around in streets and parks.

Two people died and more than 200 were injured when a 7.2 magnitude quake rocked the area near the border city of Mexicali on Sunday. Baja California Gov. Jose Osuna said the victims were crushed by a collapsed house and a falling wall.

The tremor, felt as far north as Los Angeles, cracked main roads, toppled electricity posts and knocked down an empty multistory car park under construction in Mexicali, a prosperous industrial city and busy border crossing.

A pastor in the farming town of Guadalupe Victoria near the quake's epicenter said his church remained standing but cracked down the middle two hours after he finished giving mass.

He and about 40 members of his congregation slept in a soccer field and were shaken by nearly 100 aftershocks.

"We spent the night praying here in the park. There have been constant tremors and no one wants to go back home," said pastor Fernando Lopez.

Broken gas pipes sparked fires on Sunday, and darkened streets in Mexicali caused car accidents, but no major buildings collapsed. Power was mostly reestablished on Monday, but some hospitals lay patients out on beds in parking lots due to worries over cracked walls.

Osuna said 3,500 people would be moved to shelters and noted that the full extent of damage in towns south of Mexicali like Vicente Guerrero was not yet known.

Smaller tremors continued to shake buildings, adding to fears of another big quake.

"With the number of aftershocks we've had, the likelihood of another 6 or 7 magnitude earthquake is very real," Erik Pounders, a geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, said.

"There might be a few structures that just barely made it through and the second one could be the straw that breaks the camel's back."

LONG LINES FOR GAS

A highway connecting Mexicali with the nearby border city of Tijuana on the Pacific coast was ruptured by a crevice at least a meter (3 feet) deep, according to a Reuters witness.

A liquefied natural gas import terminal south of Tijuana was not damaged however, operator Sempra Energy said.

President Felipe Calderon will visit Mexicali, home to more than a million people and a center for food processing and assembly plants, later on Monday.

Vacationers returning from Easter holidays were stuck in traffic jams and motorists reported difficulty finding fuel, even though state oil company Pemex said supply was fine.

Sunday's quake was centered in a lightly populated area but rattled nerves in the United States and across Latin America which has been shaken by devastating earthquakes in Haiti and Chile this year.

Over the border in the U.S. town of Calexico, some downtown blocks were closed off as Border Patrol agents helped police secure the area against looters. Stores had leaning awnings, smashed windows and broken vases in window displays.

"It was violent, like the earth was mad ... My home was shaking very violently, pictures coming off the walls, then the TVs came down," said local firefighter Channing Dawson.

Earthquakes of 7.0 can do serious damage to urban areas.

Some parts of San Diego reported minor structural damage and callers to local radio said the rolling tremor made it hard to keep cars on the road. In Los Angeles, buildings swayed.

Southern California with its many geological faults is prone to frequent quakes and many residents fear the next big one. The last to cause major damage was the 6.7 magnitude Northridge quake in 1994 that left 57 dead and 9,000 injured.

(Additional reporting Mica Rosenberg and Veronica Sparrowe in Mexico City; Writing by Catherine Bremer and Mica Rosenberg, editing by Alan Elsner)

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