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Southern Californians cope with earthquake anxiety as scientists assess the damage

Following two powerful earthquakes and many aftershocks in the past week, some California residents are returning home to evaluate damage. Scientists, meanwhile, are flocking to the area around the epicenters, hoping to gather information to predict future tectonic activity. Judy Woodruff talks to special correspondent Cat Wise about how locals are feeling "on edge" and what supplies they need.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Aftershocks are still rocking parts of Southern California today following two massive earthquakes that struck Thursday and Friday.

    The largest was a magnitude-7.1 quake, the biggest to hit the area in 20 years. Communities closest to the epicenter in the Mojave Desert, 150 miles north of Los Angeles, were upended by the damage.

    Special correspondent Cat Wise visited the towns where residents are picking up the pieces.

  • Cat Wise:

    Residents are trickling back in to some of the hardest-hit communities to see the scope of the damage.

    Ashly Evans is one of them. She's lived in the small town of Trona her entire life. It's located about 30 miles northeast of Ridgecrest, the largest town in the area near the epicenter.

  • Ashly Evans:

    I thought being in Trona, I would never experience anything crazy.

  • Cat Wise:

    You didn't know that there was an earthquake — the potential for an earthquake here?

  • Ashly Evans:

    I thought that was for movies.

  • Cat Wise:

    When we met the 21-year-old single mother, she was returning home with her 2-week-old baby and young daughter for the first time in several days.

  • Ashly Evans:

    It's just me, so I had to buy all this myself anyways. So anything broken is what I lost out on. I'm glad that my house didn't cave in anywhere. A lot of houses are coming down in the roof.

  • Cat Wise:

    Did you have earthquake insurance?

  • Ashly Evans:

    No, so just have to clean it.

  • Cat Wise:

    About 50 homes in Trona have been destroyed. Rockslides temporarily closed the main road into town, cutting off access to the 1,500 people who live there.

    The electricity was cut off amid temperatures hovering around 100 degrees. But it's since been restored. Residents are still without drinking water, so cases of water are having to be trucked in. It was a different scene in Ridgecrest, a community of 29,000, where water and electricity have been fully restored.

    Crews are still inspecting homes for signs of structural damage, but all government buildings have been deemed safe. They're not the only ones taking stock of the quakes' impact. As the sun came up this morning, a group of scientists and researchers gathered to discuss their goals for the day.

    They're part of a large collaborative effort between government agencies, universities, and private companies who are quickly trying to study newly visible fault lines before the elements and humans disturb the scene.

  • Jerry Treiman:

    It's the biggest earthquake we have had in about 20 years. So, it brought me out of retirement to come back out here and help with the effort.

  • Cat Wise:

    Among them is Jerry Treiman, a former senior engineering geologist at the California Geological Survey.

  • Jerry Treiman:

    Some of the ruptures further east of us are already getting covered by windblown dust and sand. And we will lose that. Especially these smaller faults or faults that moved less in this event have very confined fracturing, which can be hard to see after a week or more.

    And what we don't know is if these small fault — small displacements now might move with more displacement in a future earthquake.

  • Jen Andrews:

    Each of these little red dots is an earthquake we have experienced over the last few days.

  • Cat Wise:

    Seismologist Jen Andrews and her colleagues at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena are analyzing data from the earthquake sensors to see what it can tell them about future events.

  • Jen Andrews:

    One of the concerns here is that when we look at a map and we see faults into — little faults sections intersecting like this, we now have a very clear picture that they can move together, that, because we have got movement on two different faults, on two different sort of small faults, they can join together and give us a much bigger earthquake. They can give us much bigger magnitude and stronger shaking.

  • Cat Wise:

    And although scientists are carefully monitoring seismic activity around the state, Andrews says there are still undiscovered and unstudied faults that could cause problems in the future.

  • Jen Andrews:

    There are lots of faults that we haven't mapped that we maybe have some indication of from surface expression, but haven't been particularly active. And so there's this risk that we have to factor in as well about what could be moving that we're unaware of.

  • Cat Wise:

    Many of the 4,000 aftershocks recorded so far have been small, but some residents are so unnerved that they have felt safer sleeping outside.

  • Jessica Shultz:

    It's nice and cool out here. And we get to see the stars. And it's like a permanent camping trip for us.

  • Cat Wise:

    Jessica Shultz has spent the last two nights sleeping outdoors in Trona with her three sons. They have been sharing a mattress in a tent in her front yard.

  • Jessica Shultz:

    I'm scared that, if we sleep inside, we will have that big earthquake coming that they say is going to happen, and we won't be able to get out of this one. So I figure if we sleep outside, and it comes, we can just get into our car and go, because we already packed it.

    It's got food, water. It's got our clothes in it, everything that we're going to need.

  • Cat Wise:

    As the sun set last night, they were building a fire and preparing ready-to-eat meals dropped off by volunteers earlier in the day. Local officials have warned residents to brace themselves for more aftershocks over the coming days, but the likelihood of a large one has dropped significantly.

    We have felt several of those smaller aftershocks since we have been here reporting, including one just a few hours ago — Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Cat, these aftershocks clearly rattling people there. What else are they telling you? How are they coping?

  • Cat Wise:

    The residents that we have been talking to have told us that they really are on edge.

    One mother told me that she has been sleeping in the back of her pickup truck with her four teenage children, and none of them have been getting much sleep over the last few nights.

    Another mother told me that her young toddler has been crying out loudly every time she feels shaking. We have also heard from residents that they have heard reports that another large aftershock could happen at any moment.

    But we know from USGS officials that at this point the likelihood of a strong aftershock, 6.0 or greater, is less than 10 percent. But still, at this time, even mild shaking is really causing a lot of anxiety and fear among residents, adults and children alike.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It has to be unnerving.

    And so, Cat, what would you say is the greatest need there now?

  • Cat Wise:

    In Trona, where we have spent the most time over the last couple of days, the biggest need is clearly water.

    Bottled water is being handed out to residents by volunteers and the National Guard. But we have been hearing from folks that they are frustrated water service hasn't been brought back online for the community yet.

    Many residents rely on running water for their air conditioning units, and it's extremely hot here. We spoke to a local official today who said it is unclear at this point when water service will be back up and running.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Cat Wise, we thank you. We know it is about 100 degrees where are you, reporting from Southern California near Trona.

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