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1 year later, quake effects linger

One year after a 6.5-magnitude earthquake devastated the heart of this town, churches continue to bring hope during long-term recovery.

BY SUSAN KIM | PASO ROBLES, Calif. | December 22, 2004

"We've been worshipping in fellowship hall for a year."

—Rev. Floyd McKeithen

One year after a 6.5-magnitude earthquake devastated the heart of this town, churches continue to bring hope during long-term recovery.

On Dec. 22, 2003, more than 40 buildings were destroyed or severely damaged in Paso Robles during the biggest quake to hit the area since 1952. Two people were killed and more than 40 were injured.

Today, small businesses and homes are still rebuilding, said Sandra Garman at the First Baptist Church.

Garman and others have been lending a hand because people, she said, "are still trying, physically and financially, to recover."

Several families lost their small businesses, she said, when the quake sheared the facades off brick buildings in the old downtown district and sent a 111-year-old clock tower crashing into the street.

Garman said many small business owners have been unable to come back.

"Self-employed business owners are still facing a choice: do they try to open somewhere else? Do they do something else instead? It takes a large amount of capital to open a new business. When you don't have quake insurance, it's almost impossible to raise that kind of money."

Other families are still trying to repair their homes, Garman said.

And the emotional effects are lingering, too. "The owner of one of the destroyed buildings attends our church," said Garman. "There is an effect on him of that building being gone - certainly his business is no longer functioning. And the building of course was owned by someone who may or may not be facing legal ramifications."

Nearby, the United Methodist Church is looking back on a year of being out of its sanctuary, said the Rev. Floyd McKeithen. After the earthquake, the congregation decided to sell its property and relocate the sanctuary elsewhere. "We've been worshipping in fellowship hall for a year," he said.

Last year, the United Methodist congregation held its Christmas Eve worship across the street in the Episcopal church. In spite of the devastation, McKeithen remembers the service as a celebration. "One family had lost their entire home and still came to celebrate," he said.

Paso Robles is home to more than 25,000. And Federal Emergency Management Agency officials have said that earthquake preparedness may be more important than ever, since the town is fairly close to the center of a series of current mysterious tremors that seismologists are still trying to explain.

The tremors - deep beneath the San Andreas Fault - are near the earthquake-prone town of Parkfield, some 25 miles from Paso Robles. Scientists have yet to understand what is causing the tremors, but a research team of federal and state seismologists is exploring the phenomena.

Researchers are unwilling to say whether the seismic "chatter" points to an increased likelihood for an earthquake.

Geophysicists at the University of California at Berkeley's Seismological Laboratory have charted more than 110 faint vibrations in the past three years.

The researchers have noted the deep tremors are now occurring almost exactly at the epicenter of the 1857 Fort Tejon earthquake, which had a magnitude estimated at 7.8 to 8.0. The epicenter was deep beneath the San Luis Obispo County village of Cholame, some 17 miles south of Parkfield.

These episodes of seismic chatter are lasting from four to 20 minutes and are being recorded from as deep as 40 miles beneath the surface - up to four times the depth of average earthquakes. Scientists believe that because the tremors are occurring at such great depth, that they must be at the very bottom of the brittle crust, where the earth's hot, viscous upper mantle begins. This section of crust has been under stress for millions of years.

At least some geophysicists have hypothesized that future increases in San Andreas Fault tremor activity may signal periods of increased probability for the next large earthquake on the Cholame segment. Scientists have estimated that the Cholame segment of the fault has ruptured in a large quake roughly every 140 years. It is now 148 years since the Fort Tejon event, so the possibility of another one may be steadily increasing.

The Fort Tejon event of 1857 rocked the ground violently and ruptured the fault for 225 miles, from northwest of Parkfield to San Bernardino. It was at least as large as the 1906 San Francisco quake, but because the Cholame region was virtually unpopulated at the time, it killed only two people and destroyed only the Tejon Army post, midway along the affected section of the fault.

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