RIO DELL, Calif. — At least two people were dead, nearly a dozen were injured and scores were displaced on Tuesday as the North Coast of California — a rugged and remote stretch of redwood country overlooking the Pacific Ocean — worked to recover from a 6.4-magnitude earthquake.
The powerful jolt, in the frigid dark at 2:34 am Pacific time, damaged bridges and roads, topped walls and chimneys, and cut power to more than 70,000 utility customers in Humboldt County. By evening, electricity was restored for about half of those customers, but some 34,000 were still without power, according to Pacific Gas and Electric, and some parts of the county were left without running water and major transportation routes.
The quake was centered just offshore, about 12 miles west of the community of Ferndale and more than 200 miles north of San Francisco, in a seismically active region. Exactly one year ago, the same area was rocked by a 6.2 temblor. More than 50 aftershocks followed Tuesday’s earthquake, including a large one about five minutes after with a magnitude of 4.6, according to the US Geological Survey.
William F. Honsal, the sheriff and emergency services director of Humboldt County, said that at least two people, ages 72 and 83, died because they had suffered medical crises around the time of the earthquake and could not be reached by emergency personnel soon enough .
Among the damaged roads is the one that crosses Fernbridge, a historic multiple-arched bridge across the Eel River that is the primary route for Ferndale residents to Eureka, the county’s largest city. The bridge was closed early Tuesday, and photos showed that a billowing crack had formed in the road nearby.
In Rio Dell, an old logging community about 10 miles southeast of Ferndale that the sheriff called “ground zero” for the earthquake’s impact, the city manager, Kyle Knopp, said that 15 homes were already deemed uninhabitable because of earthquake damage, and that inspectors were continuing to examine structures. Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, and Humboldt County officials declared a state of emergency to expedite aid.
Mr. Knopp, who estimated that as many as 150 of the community’s 3,300 residents would be displaced by the time inspections were completed, also said the city might be unable to supply tap water until Wednesday at the earliest.
“This was a tough day,” said Greg Allen, the Rio Dell police chief. “That jolt hit us pretty hard.”
Witnesses, many of whom had been through significant earthquakes before, said that Tuesday’s quake felt unusually strong, leading to terrifying moments as they were shaken from their sleep.
In Rio Dell, Kirstin Collins, 32, said she awoke to a violent rattling and thought immediately of her 8-year-old son, Liam, who slept on the opposite side of the house. Her husband, Johnnie Collins, 30, ran to retrieve Liam in the pitch darkness, and cut his feet on broken items on the floor, she said.
A dresser topped onto her bed, and a fallen mirror nearly barricaded her in the room, she said. The house’s water heater broke, and a broken pipe flooded the laundry room where the family’s dog slept.
“I honestly didn’t think I was going to get out of the house,” Ms. Collins said hours later, assessing the quake’s aftermath in the rain. Once there was daylight, she said, she found more damage both inside and outside the house, and wondered how she would feed her son, charge her phone or find shelter.
“We have nothing,” she said. “Everything is broken in our house completely, and we don’t know where to go and what to do.”
Another Rio Dell resident, Joe Filyau, 59, said that he had been through other earthquakes, but “never felt one that hard.”
The “earth was just slamming up and down,” he said.
A tile from the countertop in his newly renovated kitchen broke away from the wall, he said, and he had to turn the water off after a line burst, spraying water under his house.
“Everything in the house is just everywhere,” he said.
But Mr. Filyau had more pressing concerns: His 87-year-old mother, Beverly, is on oxygen, and he did not know how much longer their gasoline-powered generator would keep running to provide power for her oxygen machine. All of the nearby gas stations were closed, so he planned to drive to Ferndale, hoping that a gas station there would have electricity and be open for business.
In the city of Fortuna, five miles east of Ferndale, local merchants said the quake on Tuesday was stronger even than the one that struck last Dec. 20 in the same region. By dawn, many people were already busy sweeping up broken glass on the sidewalks.
Kathy Comerer, the proprietor of Fortuna Fabrics and Crafts, said the earthquake had shattered seven of her store windows, “a record.” Nearby, the aroma of alcohol wafted from a Beverage Plus store, where the floor was littered with smashed liquor bottles. The owner of a pharmacy, Robert Johnson, said his storefront was intact only because he had installed sturdier windows after an earlier earthquake.
About 15 minutes’ drive away, Daniel Zingale, a retired state political strategist who now lives on eight acres of redwood forest, said the quake had frightened his two donkeys, Niño and Pinto; had sent his cat, macaroni, into hiding; and had knocked a statue of the Virgin Mary from a crèche on the fireplace mantle. But otherwise, he said, his cabin came home through without serious damage.
“It’s very dark here at night and very quiet, and all of a sudden, the house was rocking and rolling,” Mr. Zingale said. “A big mirror fell off the wall and we didn’t even hear it, because the sound of the quake was so loud.”
Boutique shops in Ferndale, a small town of 1,350 residents, had merchandise scattered across their floors. The front windows of Valley Grocery were shattered, and signs declared “Cash Only” because the power was out, as patrons shopped for essentials in the dark. At Ring’s Pharmacy, a clerk, Susie Klatt, said the quake had left not only her workplace, but also her holiday covered home, strewn with debris and damage.
“I’m a big Christmas person, so I had three trees fall over,” she said. “Santa Clauses all over the place.”
The latest earthquake and the one last year occurred in a region where three of the earth’s large crustal plates come together. Known as the Mendocino Triple Junction, it is an area of high seismic activity, averaging about 80 earthquakes a year of magnitude 3 or greater.
Along most of coastal California, the Pacific plate slides slowly to the northwest past the North American plate. This results in the San Andreas fault and other major faults that occasionally cause large earthquakes.
In the northernmost part of the coast, however, a third plate, the Gorda — part of a larger plate called the Juan de Fuca — comes into play. At this triple junction, the Gorda is sliding beneath the North American plate, a process called subduction, and at the same time sliding past the Pacific plate, creating a fault called the Mendocino Transform. The combination of these various stresses is what leads to the large number of earthquakes in the area.
Kitty Bennett contributed research. Ollie Hancock contributed reporting from Ferndale, Calif., Henry Fountain from Albuquerque and Jacey Fortin from New York.