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Stores reopen in quake-ravaged California city

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[April 20, 2010]  CALEXICO, Calif. (AP) -- The Bank of America branch remains closed but tellers inside two trucks wait on bank customers in the parking lot. The main entrance to a nearby clothing store is shut because city inspectors deem the stucco portico unsafe, but shoppers are trickling back.

HardwareCalexico, a town of 38,000 people about 120 miles east of San Diego, is slowly returning to normal after a magnitude-7.2 earthquake cracked walls and shattered windows on Easter Sunday. Stores in a three-square-block area in the heart of downtown began to reopen Thursday, leaving business owners and workers euphoric after nearly two weeks without income.

Downtown is filled one- and two-story buildings that date back to the early 1900s and stores that cater to shoppers who walk across the border from Mexicali, Mexico, for shoes and clothing. The area accounts for more than half of city sales tax revenue.

"It is the economic engine of Calexico," said City Manager Victor Carrillo. "As downtown goes, Calexico goes."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency expected to finish inspections late Friday, with an eye toward recommending to the White House next week whether California's Imperial County should qualify for federal aid.

FEMA inspector Denis Coliten said Thursday that he expected the county to reach the threshold of $43.7 million in damages to public infrastructure to get aid. On Thursday he toured an elementary school where stucco ceiling slabs fell from a portico.

All 13 public schools are closed due to damage, and there is no date to reopen them, said Christina Luhn, superintendent of the Calexico Unified School District.

Imperial County, whose unemployment rate hovers just below 30 percent, needs all the help it can get. Calexico has not given a damage estimate but the earthquake struck its water treatment system hard.

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.

About a dozen buildings in downtown Calexico were cleared to reopen Thursday and another handful of buildings are 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.

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"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.

The city erected chain-link fences around the most fragile downtown buildings to keep away pedestrians. The area is still closed to vehicles.

Grocery store owner Eduardo Lopez, 49, was beaming Thursday after authorities told him he could reopen. He called employees to order them back to work, but business was proved to be slow.

"No one knows we're open," he said. "The word is just getting out."

The earthquake was centered southeast of Mexicali, a city of about 800,000 people that suffered extensive damage .

[Associated Press; By ELLIOT SPAGAT]

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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