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Old 04-15-10, 05:42 PM   #1
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Post Quake-damaged downtown opens in Calif. border city (AP)

AP - Downtown stores began to reopen Thursday in Calexico, a town along the California-Mexico border that is gradually returning to life 11 days after a magnitude-7.2 earthquake cracked walls and shattered windows.

Business owners and workers were euphoric after nearly two weeks without income.

"It's been 11 long, agonizing days," said Eduardo Lopez, 49, the owner of a reopened grocery store. "We were unsure how long it would last."

Mayor David Ouzan was his first customer.

"Back to life. Put the music on. The phone's ringing," the mayor said after buying a Diet Coke.

About a dozen businesses were permitted to reopen. However, downtown streets remained closed to vehicles and about half the buildings in the three-square-block area were still shuttered.

City Manager Victor Carrillo said structures tagged for major repairs will be demolished if they aren't fixed.

Preliminary damage estimates from the quake approached $100 million in Imperial County, where the unemployment rate hovers just below 30 percent. Inspectors with the Federal Emergency Management Administration were surveying the damage to determine if the region was eligible for federal aid.

El Centro, the county seat, estimated damage to public infrastructure at $57.4 million as of last week, most of it at the city-owned hospital.

Damage was also extensive in Mexico, particularly in small farming villages where homes were severely damaged or destroyed. Two people were killed in Mexico.

Calexico, a city of 38,000 people about 120 miles east of San Diego, hasn't estimated property damage, but its downtown was hit hard. The area is filled with stucco porticos and one- and two-story buildings that date back to the early 1900s and cater to shoppers who walk across the border from Mexicali, Mexico.

Another handful of buildings was expected to get a green light to reopen after minor repairs. Authorities had ordered them closed because they stood alongside other structures that suffered severe damage.

"They were being held hostage by the 800-pound gorilla in the room," Carrillo said as he greeted business owners near the downtown border crossing.

Christina Ortega, 33, works at a sporting goods store that passed a building inspection two days after the Easter Sunday quake but didn't get a call to return to her $9-an-hour job until Thursday.

"The uncertainty was the worst part of it," said Ortega, whose two sons, ages 10 and 12, will be at home because their school suffered significant damage.

All 13 public schools were closed due to damage, and there was no date to reopen, said Christina Luhn, superintendent of the Calexico Unified School District. At least one elementary school, where stucco ceiling slabs fell from a portico, won't reopen this school year.

The city erected chain-link fences around the most fragile downtown buildings to keep away pedestrians. Several stores were boarded up.

A Bank of America branch remained closed, but a long line formed in the parking for two mobile trucks with tellers inside.

The timing of the quake couldn't have been worse for downtown tax preparation companies. They were doing brisk business Thursday.

Maritza Hurtado, whose company handled about 3,000 tax returns this year, moved operations to a motel conference room after the quake hit.

She couldn't get inside her office to change her automated phone greeting, and it was pointless to put a sign on her door because the street was closed.

So Hurtado relied on police officers to direct customers to her rented motel room.
"It's been chaos," she said.


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