Imperial County is located in the Imperial Valley, in the far southeast of the U.S. state of California, bordering both Arizona and Mexico. It is part of the El Centro Metropolitan Area, which encompasses all of Imperial County. As of 2010, the population was 174,528. The county seat is the city of El Centro. Established in 1907, it was the last county to be established in California. Imperial County is also part of the Southern California border region, also referred to as San Diego-Imperial, the smallest but most economically diverse region in the state. Imperial County is a mixture of rural and suburban.
The racial makeup of Imperial County was 102,553 (58.8%) White, 5,773 (3.3%) African American, 3,059 (1.8%) Native American, 2,843 (1.6%) Asian, 165 (0.1%) Pacific Islander, 52,413 (30.0%) from other races, and 7,722 (4.4%) from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race is 140,271 persons (80.4%).2
In this region, the geology is dominated by the transition of the tectonic plate boundary from rift to fault. The southernmost strands of the San Andreas Fault connect the northern-most extensions of the East Pacific Rise. Consequently, the region is subject to earthquakes, and the crust is being stretched, resulting in a sinking of the terrain over time. Imperial County-area historical earthquake activity is above California state average. It is 2,508 percent greater than the overall U.S. average.3 The Valley has been plagued by quakes and damaged by aftershocks since before reporting earthquakes became possible in 1933 and going back to the 1800s, according to the Southern California Earthquake DataCenter’s historic maps. Though the area has experienced thousands of quakes, some had more of an impact, destroying buildings, causing millions in damage and even causing death.
- 1852 Volcano Lake earthquake
On about noon of Nov. 29, 1852, a magnitude 6.5 earthquake hit about 30 miles southwest of Yuma. Cracks were formed in the clay desert near the Colorado River and the quake caused mud volcanoes and geysers to become active southwest of Fort Yuma. Shaking was felt as far away as Guaymas, in the state of Sonora, Mexico.
- 1892 Laguna Salada earthquake At 11:20 p.m. on Feb. 23, 1892, a 7.0-magnitude quake shook the area, starting about 13 miles southwest of Mexicali. The remote location in an essentially uninhabited area of Baja California probably kept damage low, but also made determining its epicenter difficult. The quake left cracks in large buildings in San Diego and caused a general alarm among the people. Adobe buildings were destroyed in San Diego County and in Paradise Valley, a church and school were destroyed.
- 1915 Imperial Valley Earthquake At 7:59 p.m. on June 22, 1915, a 6.1-magnitude earthquake struck five miles east of El Centro. About an hour later a 6.3-magnitude quake followed. The earthquake was responsible for at least six deaths, numerous injuries and almost $1 million worth of damage.
- 1940 Imperial Valley Earthquake At 8:37 p.m. on May 18, 1940, a 6.9-magnitude quake struck the Imperial fault five miles north of Calexico. Until last April, it was the strongest recorded quake to strike the Imperial Valley. It caused at least $6 million in direct damage, not taking into consideration crops lost due to damage of irrigation systems. This earthquake was directly responsible for the deaths of eight people, and indirectly for several others. At least 20 people were seriously injured.
- 1942 Fish Creek
At 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 21, 1942, a 6.6-magnitude earthquake stuck 28 miles west of Brawley. Little damage was caused relative to the size of the quake. However, it was felt over a large area of Southern California, as well as parts of Baja California and Arizona. It caused minor damage in Brawley, El Centro, Westmorland and even San Diego. The hardest hit area was Jacumba Hot Springs, fairly close to the epicenter, though even there the damage was moderate.
- 1979 Imperial Valley Earthquake At 4:54 p.m. on Oct. 15, 1979, a 6.4-magnitude earthquake shook about 18 miles southeast of El Centro. The Imperial, Brawley and Rico faults ruptured.
- 1987 Superstition Hills
At 6:15 a.m. on Nov. 24, 1987 a 6.6-magnitude earthquake struck southeast of Salton City. The initial faults affected Superstition Hills and Wienert, but it triggered shaking on the Imperial, San Andreas and Coyote Creek faults. That quake was triggered by the 6.2-magnitude Elmore Ranch Earthquake about 17 miles southeast of Salton City that occurred just more than 12 hours earlier.4
- In April 2010, a 7.2 magnitude quake struck in Baja California and impacted the Imperial Valley. Since then, several minor quakes have impacted the area. Given the area’s history of strong earthquakes, it would be assumed that more congregations would have active disaster ministries.
- One group was formed following the 2010 earthquake that includes congregations. The Imperial Valley Disaster Recovery Team, made up of a coalition of community members, businesses, service groups and faith-based organizations, was put in place to address long-term unmet recovery needs for those impacted by the Baja California-Imperial Valley earthquake, according to the group’s mission statements. Different groups, like the El Centro Kiwanis, Imperial Valley Community Foundation, Red Cross and more, have been working together since the idea was suggested by the California and federal emergency management agencies. The team is modeled after others in California. The team was based on a pattern on similar disaster recovery efforts of agencies throughout Southern California. When a disaster strikes, agencies such as CalEMA, FEMA, Red Cross and Salvation Army arrive to assist, but the magnitude of this disaster made it difficult to facilitate the long-term needs of the affected individuals.
- Three separate churches created and hosted an Emergency Prepare Fair in March and April 2011.
Official (self-reported) membership counts from congregations in Imperial County show that there are 123 congregations with 67,372 adherents, totaling 38.6 percent of the population.5
Our research has been able to identify 160 congregations in Imperial Valley. We have also identified one interfaith council (the Interfaith Council of Imperial Valley) and one operational ministerial alliance (Imperial Valley/Yuma Area Ministerial Alliance). There is one faith-based disaster response group that started in response to the earthquake in Haiti called I.V. Hope for Haiti and several congregations that have responded to needs following earthquakes in the area, including two congregations that participate in the San Diego Interfaith Disaster Council.
The Imperial County congregational list has been used as a model for our categorization system. See map on page 28.
Brie Loskota is the former executive director (2016-2021) of the USC Center for Religion and Civil Culture.
Hebah Farrag was the assistant director of research of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture through 2023.
Richard Flory is the executive director of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.