5.8 Earthquake Rocks Valley / Atlantic Seaboard

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Washington and Lee geology professor David Harbor shows James Crawford the seismograph print out from Tuesday's 5.8 earthquake.
Washington and Lee geology professor David Harbor shows James Crawford the seismograph print out from Tuesday's 5.8 earthquake.

by Valerie Garner

It was a bumpy Tuesday afternoon in Roanoke and for most of the eastern seaboard as a 5.8 magnitude earthquake was felt from Georgia to Toronto, Canada and as far west as Illinois. “There will be aftershocks,” said John Hole, Professor of Geosciences at Virginia Tech. The professor was right as a 4.2 magnitude aftershock hit Fluvanna County at 8:00 p.m. Tuesday night.

The quake occurred at 1:50 p.m. and lasted about 45 seconds.

The epicenter was located in Mineral in Louisa County which has a population of 430. Mayor Pam Harlowe said, “everyone in town is quite shaken up.” As she rode around checking the small city, she saw that all the brick chimneys of the historic town had crumbled but there were no injuries. Schools had cracks and were closed.

“It is a good time to clean out cabinets since they were already emptied for us,” Harlowe said with a nervous laugh. “The little town of Mineral is only one square mile in size and the older homes are structurally weak anyway,” said Harlowe.

Residents described their experience differently. Some thought it sounded like a train while others described it like a big wind or explosion. Those in vehicles didn’t feel anything. Mineral’s local grocery store had all its shelves emptied into the aisles.

Lynn Payne (retired Roanoke County school teacher) of Glen Allen was very close to the epicenter. She said, “Our whole house shook hard. There was a very loud rumble; I could see the walls moving. I thought a train must have derailed. I ran outside, but there were no trains passing by. Then I saw my neighbors running outside.”

Sue Preddy of Roanoke said she was under a beauty salon hair dryer and “her head kept hitting the sides – she thought the dryer was malfunctioning.”

Roanoke City’s Mike Guzo, Emergency Management Coordinator, put out a message saying what people should do in an earthquake. He said to remember that it could be a foreshock and there could be another one even stronger. He said to “drop to the ground” and “take cover under a sturdy table” at the first sign of a quake.

Roanoke County elementary schools sent students home a little early. The high schools and middle schools were evacuated safely and the buildings were checked for damage. All were deemed safe.

The quake was the largest on the East Coast since 1897. Federal buildings and National Monuments were closed as aftershocks were highly likely. Trains were delayed for much of the day as Amtrak officials inspected stations and railroad infrastructure.

A water pipe burst, flooding the Pentagon and though flights resumed at JFK and Newark, there were long delays. The 104 year old National Cathedral in Washington sustained significant damage to three of its spires and several plaster arches. There was a crack in the Washington Monument and to break the tension, one tourist said that it was leaning but he could not tell if “it was to the left or to the right.”

Two Nuclear reactors at the North Anna nuclear power facility in Louisa County shut down safely as they were designed to do.

Governor Bob McDonnell issued a statement saying in part, “All indications are that emergency response plans and orderly evacuations have gone well . . . I would like to encourage all Virginians to check on neighbors and loved ones and to continue cooperating with law enforcement and emergency personnel. All resources of the Commonwealth have been put on alert to assist in any way necessary as we move forward.”

Members of the Washington and Lee University community quickly made their way to the Geology Department in the Science Center, where the department’s two seismographs had captured the earthquake on seismograms.

“There are earthquakes in this part of the country, but they are relatively rare events,” said Paul Low, a visiting assistant professor of geology at W&L. “With the preliminary estimate of a 5.9 on the Richter scale, this would actually be an historic event. The largest previous earthquake in Virginia was also 5.9, in 1897 in Giles County, Va.”

“We’re in an area that hasn’t received a lot of tectonic activity for a very long time,” Low said.

Many Californians were unfazed by the “moderate tremor.” Californians experience such tremors often and didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Don’t tell that to some Virginians – this event will be the topic of discussion for a very long time. Or at least until this weekend’s hurricane arrives.