TRONA, Calif. — Of all the moments of terror a parent can have, the ones Sheleagh Law just endured are enough to uproot.
Like many other Californians, Law had seconds to react when a magnitude-6.4 earthquake struck Thursday, followed by a much more violent magnitude-7.1 tremor Friday night. Thousands of aftershocks are still rattling Southern California.
But unlike most residents, Law is a single mother of two special-needs sons. Trying to evacuate them in times of chaos is especially challenging.
And the 46-year-old mother herself suffers from vertigo, a condition exacerbated by any shaking movement.
“I’m keeping it together for a small time to take care of what I need to take care of,” Law said Sunday. “Then I break down in tears.”
As residents in her hometown of Trona pick up the pieces from the major quakes, Law has already decided to move to another county.
“I’m done. I am done with these earthquakes. I am done living in the area. That’s enough.”
Two days of terror
Contrary to popular belief, not all Californians are used to sizable earthquakes.
“We’ve had earthquakes in Trona like a little shake every now and then, but nothing like a 6.4 or even a 5.4,” Law said.
The first wave of panic came Thursday, when “things were flying off the shelves in the kitchen,” Law said. “Glasses started crashing onto the kitchen floor.”
As the house trembled, Law tried to get her sons out. But 15-year-old Nicholas, who has severe autism, wanted to retreat further into the house and began hitting himself as a way of coping with the ordeal, his mother said.
Her other son, 3-year-old Asa, has Down syndrome and began following his brother’s lead.
“I’m trying to explain to them we need to get out of the house,” she said.
By the time the family got out to the driveway, Law’s pickup truck “was shaking from the aftershocks.”
‘I thought the truck was going to flip over’
Law and her children jumped into her pickup and fled to her brother’s house in Chino, more than two hours away.
The brute force of the initial quake Thursday made Law think the worst was over. When a neighbor in Trona told her Friday morning that electricity had been restored, she decided to go back home.
Little did she know a much stronger earthquake was about to strike.
She parked her Ford F-150 on the driveway of a friend’s home as she chatted with the friend outside. Her sons were still in the truck when the magnitude-7.1 tremor violently shook the earth.
“The vehicle was shaking like a rag doll,” Law said. “I thought the truck was going to flip over.”
Realizing she couldn’t hold a 2-ton pickup truck still, Law watched helplessly as her sons swayed in the vehicle. When the earth finally stopped trembling, she knew it was time to flee — again.
Scorpions, rattlesnakes and kindness from strangers
Exhausted and unsure where to go, Law drove about 1 1/2 hours south, where the family spent Friday night sleeping “on the side of the road in my truck.”
But Law couldn’t really sleep. She had no idea whether her house was still standing, or when it might be safe to go back.
Stepping outside in the darkness was out of the question because “we’re in the desert,” she said. Scorpions and rattlesnakes could strike at any time.
After daylight broke Saturday, Law learned of a Red Cross emergency shelter in Ridgecrest. That’s where her family stayed for the next day. And that’s where she learned the extent of some strangers’ generosity.
“A man drove down here from Lake Tahoe — five to six hours — just to bring four cases of water to us at the shelter,” Law said. “That really touched my heart. I’m still in a state of shock.”
Seeing what’s left of her home
By Sunday morning, Law was ready to see what the quakes did to her house — and whether her home is still standing.
“I’m hopeful when we get to the house that it’s salvageable,” Law said during her drive back to Trona.
On the way, she loaded her pickup truck with 20 meals from McDonald’s.
“I’m sure I can find 20 people in Trona who don’t have food,” she said. “Water wasn’t really the issue. It’s the food.”
When she got home, “There were fissures all over the road in front of my yard,” Law said.
The power was out. The family’s belongings were scattered in disarray. But the house was still standing.
“I feel fortunate,” she said. “There are people who don’t have homes, who don’t have a tent to put in their front yards.”
But Law said she’s not going to let her family live in the house, since it’s unclear whether it’s still structurally sound.
“This has been home since 2012, but I think it’s time,” she said. “My kids and I can’t take this.”
Law said she plans to stay in the Red Cross shelter with her kids for the foreseeable future. Her long-term goal is to move in to the fixer-upper she purchased in Ridgecrest, which survived the earthquakes.
“I think in Ridgecrest, I think we’re going to be fine, since the Ridgecrest house has survived a 7.1” quake, she said.
But that house still isn’t finished. And the handyman who was helping her is now dealing with damage to his own home.
While Law said she has “zero desire to come back” to live in Trona, she’s optimistic about staying in California.
“You can’t run around scared or live your life scared,” she said. “You have to be a realist.”