A major earthquake—7.2 on the Richter Scale according to the U.S. Geological Survey—occurred April 4 approximately 40 miles south of the Mexico-U.S. border. Felt as far north as Los Angeles, the tremors damaged the U.S. Courthouse in El Centro, just across the border in the Southern District of California. The El Centro courthouse, a leased facility, houses the chambers and courtroom of Magistrate Judge Peter Lewis, along with the clerks’ office, the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Offices, as well as offices for the U.S. Marshals and Court Security Officers.
"There is damage to the stone work on the outside of the courthouse, and inside there wasn’t a book left on a shelf," said Lewis, speaking three days after the quake. "But the clerk’s office and the General Services Administration moved quickly to reopen the court, and we only missed one day. We had 60 cases on the calendar yesterday." And, Lewis notes, "We don’t stop court for aftershocks."
The El Centro courthouse handles almost 40 percent of the district’s criminal caseload on the border. While the Imperial Valley where El Centro is located has a population of about 175,000, Mexicali, Mexico, just across the border, has a population of more than 1 million. Most of the cases seen in El Centro are related to alien smuggling, illegal re-entry and drug cases.
The most significant damage to the courthouse was caused by a broken water pipe that flooded the probation office. Three days after the quake, U.S. Probation Officer Pascual Linarez was in his office where 30 commercial-size fans were running to dry the interior. He estimates it will be two to three weeks before his five probation officers are able to return to work in the office. In the meantime, some officers are working under COOP conditions from remote locations. Temporary quarters elsewhere in the courthouse are being set up for probation staff.
Linarez was visiting family in Yuma, Arizona, on Sunday when he felt the earthquake and immediately headed back to El Centro to check for damage.
"You can see ceiling to floor cracks in the walls, but the main damage is the water that flooded the suite," he said, "and some damage to paperwork when files were tipped over. Right now we’re waiting to see if any of our computers were damaged."
Fortunately, because it was Sunday when the earthquake happened, the El Centro courthouse was closed and no one was injured.
The city of El Centro was not as fortunate. In the downtown area, there were reports of collapsed walls and shattered storefront windows. Initially, power was out to a three block section. Several apartment complexes were evacuated because of structural damage.
In the days following the earthquake, Linarez said there have been hundreds of aftershocks; the previous night, four had been strong enough to wake him. Asked how this earthquake compares to past experiences, he said, "Last year we had a lot of little shakes, but there has been nothing like this."