YUMA - Sandra Sills was in her living room, arranging fire extinguishers for a business she runs out of her home, when the wind chimes rang and pictures and decorations fluttered on the walls.
“It kind of sounded like something was coming out of the floorboards,” Sills said.
At Sunshine Market & Liquors, owner Faris Jamo swayed back and forth as he described the rolling sensation.
“It was like something unknown,” Jamo said.
“It felt like a big plane was flying low over your head,” said Jonathan Jay, one of Jamo’s employees.
It was an earthquake, one of a number that have rattled nerves here since Feb. 9, when a moderate tremor measuring 5.5 on the Richter scale of ground motion occurred along the Cerro Prieto Fault near Mexicali in Baja California.
While only one building, an aging, unused structure owned by the city, has suffered damage, the quakes are a reminder that this part of Arizona lies less than 40 miles from the San Andreas Fault system. Experts say bigger shakes are inevitable.
Since the early 1900s, when the first seismograph was installed in Arizona, several big quakes in California’s Imperial Valley and Baja California have caused shaking in Yuma and been felt as far away as Phoenix and Tucson, according to the Arizona Geological Survey.
In 1915, a magnitude 7.1 quake sent Yuma residents rushing into the streets. A 1940 quake measuring between 6.7 and 7.1 buckled roads and dislodged bridges in Somerton, just east of Yuma. A 1980 quake measuring between 6.2 and 6.3 knocked groceries off shelves here.
“There’s a small part of you that wonders, ‘Are we working up to a big one?’” said Sills, who pointed to a wall hanging still askew from the Feb. 22 tremor. “We’ve always had earthquakes. I don’t ever remember, honestly, a time where we had so many in a row like this.”
While the earthquakes have caused little more than excitement, they’re still the talk of the town.
“People always ask, ‘Did you feel the earthquake?’” Sills said.
Earl Burnett, who teaches geology at Arizona Western College, said there have been several magnitude-5 earthquakes and hundreds of smaller quakes west of Yuma, most too minor to be noticed by residents, in the current swarm.
Burnett said two of the tremors struck while he was teaching a class, causing a few students to become dizzy. He asked students to write descriptions of how they felt.
“A couple of them reported fear,” Burnett said.
The San Andreas Fault system, where the Pacific and North American tectonic plates move in opposite directions, runs from Northern California down to the Gulf of California.
Don Blakeman, a spokesman for the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Earthquake Center in Golden, Colo., said there is no indication that the tremors portend a larger quake. There will be a one eventually, he said.
“But we have no way of knowing if that’s going to be this afternoon or if it’s going to be 50 years from now,” Blakeman said.
The earthquake center reported a magnitude 2.6 tremor, too minor to be felt in Yuma, near Mexicali on Monday, but the swarm appeared to be dying down, spokesman Rafael Abreu said.
Mike Erfert, a spokesman for the Yuma Fire Department, said officials saw an increase in 911 calls after the tremors, most from people simply reporting the earthquakes or seeking information.
The city-owned Gandolfo Annex, a structure formerly used for offices and a hotel, suffered large cracks after the initial quake. The building, built of unreinforced masonry, hadn’t been used in years.
The city has a disaster plan to deal with a major earthquake, but Erfert said individuals need to be prepared to care for themselves in such an event.
“The general message is that emergency preparedness for whatever the emergency situation might be is always what we recommend,” he said.