CA responder becomes survivor

Easter earthquake disaster focused priorities for California man

BY SANDIE GARCIA | IMPERIAL VALLEY, CA | April 24, 2010


Captain Jerry Esqueda of The Salvation Army speaks to a child waiting with her parents for aid following the April earthquake.

It had been an unremarkable Sunday afternoon nap, no different than hundreds of others, recounted Captain Jerry Esqueda of The Salvation Army, when “all of a sudden the whole earth started shaking, and the house started moving back and forth. Everything started falling out of the kitchen cupboards; everything started coming out of the office, the piano was rolling around the room. It was a disaster zone.”

Esqueda, who has helped survivors of other disasters, had just become a disaster survivor himself. The 7.2 earthquake that struck on Easter Sunday near Mexicali, the capital of the Mexican state of Baja, California killed two people and devastated the lives of hundreds of others. Mexicali is situated on the U.S.-Mexico border adjacent to Calexico, here in Imperial County.

As Esqueda began to make his way towards his back door to get away from the falling debris, he dodged a bookshelf that fell and landed on the couch. Then another huge tremor occurred, pushing him out onto his patio and onto the pavement.

“I landed on my left arm, which caused a hematoma the size of a baseball. Then I also landed on my left knee which caused a sprain and some bruising. Everything was just shaking so bad, it seemed like the patio cover was going to fall off, so I tried to get out from under it. My wife came out we got over to the grass, couldn’t even stand it was shaking so badly. It felt like we were in the ocean, there was just waves of water, just going through, and then finally it subsided,” he said.

After the shaking subsided, Esqueda and his wife Vicky made their way to a local hospital and saw that there were many injured people standing outside, waiting to be helped. Rather than waiting, Esqueda chose to go to two of the Salvation Army stores in the area.

“There wasn’t any structural damage (at the thrift store), but inside a lot things had fallen, causing quite a mess. I went to another location, where we have a men’s shelter, and they were making sandwiches already, giving them to people who had already come by for food,” Esqueda said.

He loaded a disaster van with water, food, and snacks to take back over to the hospital to help feed the people that were there for medical assistance. “I didn’t think about myself, my injuries were minor and I knew there were many more people out there who needed our help and support,” Esqueda said.

The night of the earthquake, the Salvation Army housed three families, then brought in 11 more families on Monday, and then set up a shelter with FEMA at a local middle school.

Esqueda predicted that more people would have stayed at the shelter, but because many apartment buildings had been marked as being too dangerous to access, people were sleeping outside of their apartments to make sure nobody would go in through broken windows steal their belongings.

Eventually Esqueda was seen by a doctor and told to rest his injuries for four days. “I had work from home trying to get vehicles out and help the community. I felt a little helpless, but thank God we had our cell phones and we were all able to communicate back and forth,” he said.

As soon as Esqueda was cleared to leave his home, he dispatched four Salvation Army vans to Calexico, stocked with coffee, food, water, and supplies.

“We saw a lot of people coming across from Mexicali, many of whom had lost their homes and belongings. Some thought they were going to have to pay for our services, and I said, ‘No this is for you. We want you to be encouraged and we want you to know that there is help here for you.’”

After the meal, The Salvation Army distributed enough emergency food to last four more days and then left more food at The Salvation Army Corps Community Center in Mexicali. All in all, Esqueda says The Salvation Army supplied food for 6,000 meals.

“There are assisted living apartments that have been red-tagged and many of the residents are being put up at local motels. We don’t know how much longer that will be financially possible, so some decisions need to be made soon,” Esqueda said.

Weeks after the initial quake, aftershocks are still rattling Imperial Valley.

“We’re constantly having tremors coming through. It’s wild. After the initial earthquake, we’ve had over 500-600 aftershocks. I think my house is on a fault because we’re getting every aftershock that comes through. I’m thinking of getting a new house!” said Esqueda.

CalTech scientists say increased seismic activity is to be expected following an earthquake with the magnitude of Easter Sunday’s quake.

Esqueda remains committed to serving his community in the aftermath of the quake. “My injuries are nothing compared to what these people are going through,” he said. “I’m just trying to help things back up and going, doing my best to ease the pain and be a support to the people there."


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