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Quake rattles buildings, nerves in Calif.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

LOS ANGELES -- The strongest earthquake to strike a populated area of Southern California in more than a decade rattled windows and chandeliers, made buildings sway and sent people running into the streets Tuesday. But there were no immediate reports of serious injuries or major damage.

The magnitude 5.4 quake -- considered moderate -- was felt from Los Angeles to San Diego, and as far east as Las Vegas, 230 miles away. Nearly 30 aftershocks quickly followed, the largest estimated at 3.8.

The quake was centered 29 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles near Chino Hills, a San Bernardino County city of 80,000 built mostly in the early 1990s with the latest in earthquake-resistant technology.

Buildings swayed in downtown Los Angeles for several seconds, leading to the evacuation of some offices.

"I'm still shaking. My knees are wobbling. I thought the building might collapse," said Rosana Martinez, 50, an employee of California National Bank in downtown Los Angeles.

As strong as it felt, Tuesday's quake was far less powerful than the deadly magnitude 6.7 Northridge earthquake that toppled bridges and buildings Jan. 17, 1994. That was the last damaging temblor in Southern California, though not the biggest. A 7.1 quake struck the desert in 1999.

"The most interesting thing to us about this earthquake so far is it is the first one we've had in a populated area for quite a long time and people have forgotten what earthquakes feel like," said Kate Hutton, a seismologist at Caltech. "We should probably look at it as an earthquake drill. I mean it's a drill for the Big One that will be coming some day."

The quake interrupted a meeting of the Los Angeles City Council, causing the 27-story city hall to sway just as Councilman Dennis Zine was criticizing a plan to increase trash fees.

"And there goes the earthquake -- earthquake, earthquake, earthquake!" said Zine, as members of the audience began to cry out. "The building is rolling!"

California's Office of Emergency Services received scattered reports of minor infrastructure damage, including broken water mains and gas lines.

"Nothing serious enough to be an immediate threat to lives, but there is some disruption to utility service," spokesman Kelly Huston said. The damage was in the greater Los Angeles area.

Minor structural damage was reported throughout Los Angeles, along with five minor injuries and people stuck in elevators, said City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, serving as acting mayor. She said there was flooding in one department store.

The California Department of Transportation and California Highway Patrol were assessing freeways to check for damage. Traffic appeared to be flowing easily, however.

"We have no reported damages or cracks to structures," said Caltrans spokeswoman Maria Raptis.

The jolt caused a fire but no injuries at a Southern California Edison electrical substation in La Habra, about 12 miles southwest of the epicenter, spokesman Paul Klein said. Damage there and to other equipment led to some power outages in Chino Hills, Chino, Diamond Bar and Pomona, he said.

Near the epicenter, all the customers of a Chino Hills Starbucks ran outside and bags of coffee beans fell off shelves, said worker Jamie Saleh, 24.

"It was very, very strong. It was rolling and ... there wasn't a pause. it came on really strong and just kept going."

Chino Hills was incorporated in 1991, so much of the construction is newer and built to modern safety standards, said city spokeswoman Denise Cattern. She said there were no reports of harm in the city of 80,000, although cell phone service in the area was disrupted. The biggest employer in town, the school district, is out of session.

"At this point, the biggest impact we can report is getting through on cell phones. ... And a few little rattled nerves," Cattern said.

"It was dramatic. The whole building moved and it lasted for a while," said Los Angeles County sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore, who was in the sheriff's suburban Monterey Park headquarters east of Los Angeles.

In Orange County, about 2000 detectives were attending gang conference at a Marriott hotel in Anaheim when a violent jolt shook the main conference room.

Mike Willever, who was at the hotel, said, "First we heard the ceiling shaking, then the chandelier started to shake, then there was a sudden movement of the floor."

Chris Watkins, from San Diego, said he previously felt several earthquakes, but "that was one of the worst ones."

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