Thousands of people swapped the usual California "where-were-you" stories yesterday as they picked up the pieces from the worst earthquake to wrench this coastal city since 1952.

It was what scientists would regard as a moderate quake, measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale and causing only minor visible damage on the outside.

But inside the homes and businesses of virtually all 175.000 residents of the Santa Barbara area, it was a very real disaster.

Dollar estimates of property damage ran as high as $1 million. Families had to deal with gooey messes from refrigerators that popped open, smashed records, toppled bookcases and shattered remains of treasured family mementos.

Businesses found merchandise smashed and scattered, ceilings fallen and shattered remains of treasured family mementos.

As often is the case in this environmentally conscious area the natural disaster took on a political tone. Opponents of the major liquefied natural gas port recently approved by the state for a remote area northwest of the city were saying "I told you so."

A small earthquake fault runs through the proposed port site, and Al Baroni of the Citizens Against Government Dumbness, which opposes the port, said: "As far as we're concerned, it's fantastic. It just shows the instability of the entire area."

Federal officials, who must approve the port, have said its earthquake safety will be a major factor in their decision.

Security guards at the oceanfront site felt the jolt, as did a band of protesting Indians camped there.

The quake, which struck shortly before 4 p.m. (PDT) Sunday, was centered six miles offshore in the fault-laced Santa Barbara channel, but the 14 oil platforms - including the one that was the source of the huge 1969 oil spill - reported no damage and no oil leak.Two Chevron platforms shut down automatically because of the vibration.

State engineers flown in from Sacramento checked an overpass over heavily traveled U.S. Highway 101, a main north-south coastal highway. The overpass was closed, cutting off the main access road to the University of California campus here.

Metal railings on the overpass parted, bolts were sheared off and cracks were visible on the concrete supports. There was no word on when it might reopen, but traffic on the highway continued.

A main mountain road, California one 54, east to the Danish tourist town of Solvang, also was closed by slides, and its reopening was uncertain.

Southern Pacific Railroad crews worked to clear a derailed freight train that blocked the San Diego-to-Seattle coastal route for at least 24 hours. The 58 cars and engine were cleared from the track before sunrise, but reparing the track took time. Amtrak passenger traffic was halted, with passengers being bused. A railroad spokesman put damage at about $420,000.

The northbound train hit the spread tracks at 50 miles per hour shortly after the quake. One set of wheels rolled across nearby U.S. 101 and came to rest on the median strip.

There were no injuries there, and no critical injuries reported anywhere. Hospital emergency rooms burned while cooking at home or hit by flying glass.

Fear, plus a desire to view the damage, drove thousands of residents into the streets. Jim Braly, a relatively new residents from Arizona, summed up a near-universal reaction from those aware of predictions that a killer earthquake is due in California before long. As he jumped off his counch, he told his wife, "My God, this is the BIG one."