Baja California Earthquake: Recovering from Easter Sunday 7.2 Quake

Strongest to hit area in a 20 years, but damage light.

April 5, 2010, 4:19 PM

April 5, 2010— -- Southern California is recovering tonight from the biggest earthquake to hit the region in nearly 20 years. The quake, which struck Easter Sunday along the Laguna Salada fault line in Baja California, was felt more than 300 miles from the epicenter, and there were more than 100 aftershocks in the 24 hours that followed.

Incrediblly, the damage appears to have been minimal so far, especially compared to the wreckage in Haiti.

Seismologists say the Laguna Salada quake was five times as powerful as the Haitian earthquake. It was 10 times larger in magnitude than the 1994 Northridge quake, which killed 72 people, injured more than 9,000, and destroyed buildings and two freeway ramps in Los Angeles.

The damage and the death toll Sunday was much lower.

Only three people were killed, crushed by collapsing walls. The magnitude-7.2 earthquake struck near the border town of Mexicali at 3:40 p.m. Pacific Time on Sunday.

One local resident told ABC News he was home watching a soccer game on TV with his family when the quake hit.

"It was very scary," he said. "My wife starts crying and my kids were scared too."

The earth shook for 45 seconds. The ground shook so hard that 20 million people felt it, some as far away as Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Diego.

Many were worried an earthquake so close to the massive San Andreas and Hayward fault lines might trigger ones there as well. But seismologists discount that possibility.

"Each earthquake makes another earthquake more likely, but only for a short period of time, and only relatively nearby," seismologist Dr. Lucy Jones with the US Geological Survey told ABC News.

"We're seeing lots of aftershocks, but we don't see a special impact on the San Andreas," she said.

"We average one or two magnitude-sevens a month, somewhere in the world. What's happened, though, is we happened to have had these earthquakes near where people are, so we're seeing much more impact from the earthquakes this year, but not a real change in the rate."

The earthquake was a scary disruption of Easter dinner for many in the affected area.

Within hours, people were posting videos of "tsunami waves" forming in backyard swimming pools.

In Calexico, Calif.– along the Mexican border – the most serious damage occured downtown. Eighty percent of the buildings there have been "red-tagged," meaning no one is allowed inside them, even to clean things up. Authorities worry the buildings are so badly damaged that an aftershock could bring them down.

The destruction is worse just across the border in Calexico's sister city, Mexicali. More than 200 people were injured, mostly by falling debris.

To make matters worse, they briefly had to evacuate the local hospital.

A vacant parking structure collapsed after the earthquake but no one was injured. Government buildings were damaged too, but, luckily, they were empty for the holidays.

Today, power lines remained down and many streets are damaged. Workers also tried to repair cracked sewers, which spilled raw sewage into the street.

Seismologists told ABC News there are two reasons for the minimal damage and death toll. First, the biggest part of the energy spread into unpopulated areas of the desert. Second, Mexico – unlike Haiti – has relatively good earthquake building codes, which are strictly enforced by local authorities.