Humboldt County was jolted awake at 2:34 a.m. on Dec. 20 by a magnitude-6.4 earthquake that knocked out power throughout much of the county, with shaking felt as far as Redding to the east and the Bay Area to the south, with the Eel River Valley bearing the brunt of the damage.
"The city of Rio Dell is the city that has been hit the hardest," said Sheriff William Honsal during a news conference later in the day at Rio Dell City Hall. "That's why we're here. This is Ground Zero."
Countywide, more than 70,000 PG&E customers were left without power, with a dozen injuries reported and two medical emergency deaths attributed to the quake's aftermath.
"Our hearts and prayers go out to their families," Honsal said, noting the deaths were of 72- and 83-year-old residents who were unable to receive immediate treatment for medical emergencies sustained during or immediately after the quake.
While fierce shaking was reported throughout the county, significant damage was relatively limited. Fernbridge, the century-old "Queen of Bridges" that spans the Eel River, connecting Ferndale to U.S. Highway 101, was badly damaged in the quake, while minor damage was reported to buildings throughout the Eel River Valley. But a significant portion of the damage appears to have been centered in Rio Dell.
City Manager Kyle Knopp reported that as of the afternoon of Dec. 20, 15 homes had been red tagged, meaning they are unsafe for occupancy, while another 18 had been yellow tagged, flagging major non-life threatening conditions. About half the city's homes remained to be inspected.
Rio Dell Volunteer Fire Chief Shane Wilson said his crew leapt into action immediately.
"We were, well, not really dispatched. We basically woke up and just assembled at the fire station," Wilson said, adding that many crew members assisted their immediate neighbors before reaching the station. Once there, he said they needed to pry the station's garage doors open to free its three fire engines to respond to calls, adding that there were 40 to 50 calls within the first half hour.
CalFire, Wilson said, dispatched crews to help respond to the calls, which included two fires — one structure and one debris — that needed to be put out.
Honsal said there were numerous reports of "entrapments" in the small city immediately following the quake.
"I have not heard of [structure] collapses but I've heard some people were trapped in their homes and had to be rescued," he said.
Knopp said the temblor badly damaged the city's water infrastructure as well.
"If you turn on your tap, no water will come out; your toilets won't flush," he said, adding that while the city was working to repair damage and get the system up and running again, bottled water was being distributed at the fire station and portable toilets had been set up throughout town.
Food for People also quickly mobilized throughout the day on Dec. 20, and by 1:30 p.m., was distributing prepared meals to residents in need in Rio Dell and parts of Fortuna, where water infrastructure issues necessitated a boil warning.
Knopp said most residents displaced in Rio Dell have been able to find shelter with family or friends, and the city was working with those who weren't able to find places to stay.
The quake struck at 2:34 a.m. — exactly a year after a magnitude 6.2 quake shook Ferndale and neighboring Eel River Valley communities. Cynthia Pridmore, an engineering geologist with the state's Seismic Hazard Program, said the temblor struck about 2 miles offshore and 15 miles southwest of Ferndale on a strike-slip fault along the Gorda Plate. No tsunami warning was generated.
The quake was followed by more than 50 aftershocks throughout the day, including numerous magnitude 4.0 or larger. Honsal urged residents to remain vigilent.
"Be prepared," he said. "There will be aftershocks; there have been 70-plus since the initial jolt. Prepare for that 5.0-plus aftershock, which is definitely likely. I don't think we are out of the woods yet."
Throughout much of the county, after spending the morning shaken, residents cleaned up minor damage in their homes — items that had fallen off shelves and walls — before preparing to be without power indefinitely. At grocery stores that were open and operating on generator power, lines stretched down the aisles as shoppers stocked up on ice and other essentials, while gas stations that remained open saw lines stretch several blocks as people looked to fill up their tanks and generators.
As the Journal this story went to press shortly after 6 p.m. on Dec. 20, PG&E had restored power to much of the county, though an unknown number — most in the Eel River Valley — were still without service. The company estimated power would be restored to most within 24 hours of when the earth started shaking but offered no guarantees, saying actual restoration times would be dependent on damage assessments and the company would update residents every four to six hours on its efforts.
Local schools not already on winter break were closed Dec. 20, due to the lack of power and concerns about road damage. As the Journal went to press, it was unclear when they planned to re-open.
Local officials, meanwhile, were working to assess the damage and bring state resources to the table. The city of Rio Dell declared a state of emergency in the afternoon, while Honsal declared a countywide emergency. Most local cities, meanwhile, set up charging stations for residents to power their devices and phone lines to report damage.
North Coast state Sen. Mike McGuire announced late in the afternoon that the state had pledged $6 million in emergency funds to immediately kick off emergency repairs to Fernbridge, which, in addition to being added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987 and holding the distinction of being the longest operational poured concrete bridge in the world, is the main artery connecting Ferndale to the outside world.
"A contractor is already in place and work will begin today!" McGuire announced on his social media account.
While damage was significant and the full toll of the quake not yet known, Honsal said he had feared the county would be much worse off, given the ferocity and duration of the shaking that awoke most of its residents.
"I think we dodged a bullet," he said.
Iridian Casarez (she/her) is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at (707) 442-1400, extension 317, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the news editor at the Journal. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or email@example.com. Kimberly Wear is the digital editor at the Journal. Reach her (707) 442-1400, extension 323, or firstname.lastname@example.org.