SEARLES VALEY, Calif. (KERO) — The City of Ridgecrest is no stranger to earthquakes. This desert community located 100 miles east of Bakersfield was known for being a quiet urban oasis, focused primarily on research and development coming out of the China Lake naval base.
“So Ridgecrest itself is a fault area, a very interesting geological and geographical area," said Ridgecrest Mayor Eric Bruen.
But now it’s known for another reason.
In July of 2019 the Searles Valley was rocked by a 6.4 Magnitude earthquake on July 4. That tremor ended up being only a foreshock to a 7.1M quake the next day.
“There’s nothing more frightening then having that big one that scares you and then having something bigger," Bruen said.
For weeks following those devastating quakes the community worked to rebuild. The repairs for the Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake topping $3 billion. But in the years to follow the greatest lasting impacts weren’t physical.
“The psychological aspect of it was when we had the 6.4, we began the recovery as a community that day," Bruen said. "Then comes 7 p.m. on July 5 and the 7.1, and it placed in everyone's mind there can always be a bigger one," Bruen said.
Located just 30 miles east of Ridgecrest lies the community of Trona. This small community suffered damages that left it permanently changed.
“We’re actually from a big city and we moved out here it was very quiet but after the earthquake it made it worse for us to live comfortably," said Angelica Hernandez. "It's hard to be in your comfort zone and to put your valubles back up.”
The Hernandez family moved to Trona just a few months before the earthquakes. While they hadn’t lived there long before the quakes, they can tell that things still aren’t the same. After three years, homes are still working on repairs, while some are now empty.
“I did hear that people did leave to go to Texas or elsewhere because of damages or they just didn't want to stay because of what happened," Hernandez said.
The town rich in minerals with a mining plant that’s supported the little community since the 1860s. The only store in the town, a Family Dollar, is still closed and boarded up. Residents looking to find groceries must make the drive out to Ridgecrest.
“When we were growing up it was a really nice place to live. It was a small community but there were things to do,” said Priscilla Benadom. Benadom was board and raised in Trona.
While the community of Trona may be small with a population of less than 2,000, the people who do live there have a love for their community that’s kept them going through the years, through the earthquakes, and through the recovery.
“People have to realize that the people are still here and it’s not the building that’s important, it’s the relationships," Benadom said. "If I can see that begin to come back then I think that would be the step in the next direction.”
The local high school, a landmark that had educated Trona residents for decades, was red tagged and forced to close. The current students and district combining with the local elementary school.
“I graduated from that high school in 1976. It’s difficult," Benadom said. "I think the hardest part is knowing the gymnasium will be torn down, I know it has to happen but it’s hard to see that part of your life missing.”
Soon, the town of Trona will move forward with plans to build a new high school. The residents say they’ve seen the increased attention on their town since the earthquake — and they hope that will help bring attention to the gems hidden in this small community.
Something Ridgecrest leaders say has been a hidden blessing since the earthquakes.
“It has provided a great shot of revitalization, construction, new building, rebuilding," Bruen said."
In China Lakem a new runway will some be constructed and will allow the base to welcome in the latest models of jets and projects for the base bringing in over 1,500 construction jobs to the community.
"Our local cinemas was the most symbolic of damage within Ridgecrest," said Bruen. "But when you walk in and see the amount of work and revitalization that was brought to it, that it's almost like the phoenix that rose up from the ashes."