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Life Was Unstable Before the Earthquake

October 23, 1989

WATSONVILLE, Calif. (AP) _ Life for farmworkers was never predictable, even before an earthquake destroyed at least 370 homes and forced hundreds of people onto the streets of this farming community.

It’s a situation many have faced before - even in the best of times.

″Being homeless is only a couple of dollars away and they are trying to figure out day-to-day where they are going to live,″ said Estella Mejia, who works for Salud Para la Gente, a community health clinic.

″Life’s very unstable and when something like this happens, it adds to it. They live with crises already,″ Mejia said.

But normally, those crises are personal - families living 10 to a home or workers combing the region for jobs when the harvests are over.

This time, the peopleare suffering as a community.

″When we go on the streets and into camps to visit, it’s a little chaotic. But what gives me hope is there are a lot of people who care,″ Mejia said.

Watsonville, a community of 30,000, is near the epicenter of Tuesday’s quake, about 80 miles south of San Francisco. It is a frozen food processing center for vegetables grown in the area’s fields.

City Councilman Rex Clark said the disaster brought the community together.

″I see neighbors whom I’ve known for a long time and only say hello to and now suddenly you stop to talk and see what’s happened to their houses,″ Clark said.

A half-dozen tent encampments have sprouted in vacant fields where officials estimate 500 are living. About 1,000 others are in three shelters. Countless others are living in cars or yards.

Many residents were so frightened by the quake and its aftershocks they refuse to go indoors, even though their homes had been declared safe.

″It’s just scary. I think another disaster is going to happen,″ said Rosa Chavez, who has spent nights since the quake with her 8-month-old baby and other family members in the back of her father’s truck. ″The little kids are afraid of going into any building.″

Raymundo Leyva is one of those who fear another tremor could topple the weakened walls of his house. After Tuesday’s quake, as soon as he could get to a working telephone line, Leyva called his grandparents in Mexico who had survived their own powerful earthquake four years ago.

″Everyone was crying. They said they were happy to hear from me because they thought Watsonville was gone,″ Leyva said. ″They thought it was going to happen, the same thing that happened in Mexico City. I did, too.″

City spokeswoman Lorraine Washington said no attempt will be made to ban camping until all homes are inspected and it is determined who was left truly homeless. Workers so far have marked 330 homes unsafe to enter near the hard- hit downtown area. That total is expected to rise dramatically as workers travel into the outskirts of town, she said.

Damage to the city has been estimated at $122 million with the loss of downtown businesses making up a quarter of that total.

Almost an entire block of businesses bordering a central plaza where townspeople normally gather in the evenings will have to be demolished. Several landmarks, including Ford’s Department Store and the town clock, are among those will have to be razed.

″That’s going to dramatically change the appearance of the downtown plaza because those buildings were the backdrop,″ said Clark.

″There’s a lot of Victorian architecture and no one’s going to replace it with that style,″ he said. ″Hopefully we won’t become glass and steel.″

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