It was a bleak Christmas Eve in Paso Robles.
Two days after an earthquake flattened buildings in this small town, killing two women, the usual bustle of last-minute shoppers was replaced by bulldozers and crews clearing debris from roads and inspecting businesses to determine whether to allow the owners to go back in.
A small Christmas tree sat Wednesday on the sidewalk in front of what used to be the House of Bread Bakery, now nothing more than a pile of planks and red bricks.
Steam rose from the streets as a stream of blue-green, sulfur-scented water flowed from a cracked pipe in this town once renowned for its natural hot springs.
“I’m brokenhearted,” said Sandra Wallace, who runs an alpaca ranch outside the town of 27,000. “It’s typically a joy to come downtown this time of year. It’s a gathering point. It makes you want to cry. It’s just hard to say, ‘Happy holidays.”’
Sandy McGuffin stood in the rain in a park across from his flower shop, waiting for building inspectors to allow him back in.
“We’re trying to do some flower deliveries today,” he said. “We just have to get clearance to get back in there. Once we do that, we’ll try to make some people happy after all.”
Monday’s magnitude-6.5 quake struck north of San Simeon and rumbled through the San Luis Obispo County countryside. The worst of the damage was in Paso Robles, where two women were killed in the collapse of a 19th-century clock tower.
Mayor Frank Meacham said about 90 businesses remained closed Wednesday as building inspectors assessed the damage.
Diane Carpenter swept debris from the green carpet inside her bookshop and marveled at how a 6-foot grandfather clock remained intact. The hands had stopped at 11:13 a.m., nearly precisely the time of the quake.
“At least there were only two people killed,” said resident Lee Agon. “That’s something to be thankful for. There will be a lot of people in church tomorrow.”