And the Earth Shook…

August 25, 2011 Miscellany 3

You don’t expect earthquakes in Virginia. 
It’s true that central Virginia is slightly more likely to have seismic activity than a lot of the rest of the East Coast, but that’s not saying much.  There is a fault line running through Virginia, part of what was once a tectonic plate boundary, but hasn’t been for millennia. 
Nonetheless, we had an earthquake here on Tuesday. 
This wasn’t merely a tiny, minor vibration, the sort you can hardly feel.  No, this was a 5.8-magnitude quake that shook the entire house, rattled all the crockery, knocked things off shelves, and left us shaken and quite taken aback.
I was in the kitchen making cookies when the earthquake occurred.  It started as a minor vibration; for a split second I attributed it to weapons firing at Fort A. P. Hill, about 15 miles south of us.  As the vibration rapidly escalated into shaking, rumbling, and heaving, I realized it was indeed an earthquake.  The cookie sheets and bowl rattled around on the counter, and I moved into the middle of the room in case anything fell from the cupboards above me.  There were thuds and bumping noises; I feared our daughter had fallen or been hurt, but later discovered the thuds were due mainly to empty boxes falling in the basement.

Once it was over, my daughter and I went outside for a little while, in case the initial quake was merely the preliminary to something stronger.  Eventually we went back inside to check for damage.  Fortunately, nothing broke, although as I said, some things did fall from the shelves – a brass candelabra being the main casualty apart from the aforementioned empty boxes.  The cat’s toy mice, which we keep along the top of a picture frame (don’t ask), were scattered on the floor, and most of the pictures on the walls were a bit askew.  As far as we can tell, there is no damage to the house, though I’ll be watching the pipes for slow leaks over the next few days; I’m a little concerned about whether the glue sealing pipe sections together has held up.  Others in our county were less lucky; we’ve heard of broken vases and even fallen televisions and computers, and there was some damage to buildings in nearby Fredericksburg.  We live about 50 miles from the epicenter (near Mineral and Louisa, Virginia), but the shaking was felt as far away as New York.
We’ve had several aftershocks since the initial quake, including a 4.2 on Tuesday evening and a 4.5 around 1:05 am Thursday morning.  These are much less noticeable, only producing very mild shaking or vibrating of objects; I noticed the latest one mainly because I was on the computer, and the desk, keyboard, and monitor shook side-to-side a little. 
By Wednesday, there had been time to asses the damage, which is more widespread and extensive than first reports indicated.  Schools around Virginia are reporting damage, including 74 schools in Fairfax county.  Closer to us, the 3-story main building on the Fredericksburg campus of Germanna has been closed due to extensive cracking, and all classes there suspended until further notice.  Merchandise fell from store shelves in Louisa and Mineral and even Fredericksburg.  There was a gas leak in downtown Fredericksburg.  Some homes and other buildings have been damaged – chimneys seem to be the most frequent casualties, especially in older, historic buildings in Fredericksburg and elsewhere.  The hospital reports no damage.

Damage at Germanna Comm. College
The Harry Nice bridge on US-301 across the Potomac (near Dahlgren, Virginia) was closed for several hours, reopened, and closed a second time before reopening for good.  I presume it was being checked for damage.  A friend of mine was near the top of the bridge when the earthquake struck; she described it as rippling and swaying, and was sure it would collapse. 
The North Anna nuclear power plant, about 10 miles from the epicenter, appears not to have been damaged.    Automatic safety measures cut in to take the plant off-line, with diesel generators to keep the reactors cool – though one of the four diesel generators did not kick in, and as of Wednesday, external power still hadn’t been restored.  This plant is one that merited concern on a Nuclear Regulatory Commission report on seismic hazards last year, due to its proximity to a fault line.  Some steam did vent, but we’ve been told it wasn’t radioactive.  However, I’ll be keeping an eye out for news about the plant over the next few months.
Many buildings in the small towns of Louisa and Mineral, closest to the epicenter, are damaged, some quite badly. Louisa High School sustained some damage, and six students had minor injuries. In nearby historic Culpeper, three buildings have been condemned, and the jail had to be evacuated.  The walls of the historic St. Stephens Episcopal Church have buckled.  Several roads in the historic district are closed.
There were reports of possible wall collapses in DC and Richmond.  Several of the decorative pinnacles of various towers at the National Cathedral, a Gothic-style stone structure in DC, broke off, and there may be cracks in some of the flying buttresses.  Various DC monuments and museums are being checked for damage, as well; there are apparently cracks at the top of the Washington Monument.  And several apartment buildings in Prince George’s County were so badly damaged that shelters are being set up to house the residents.
Recovery will be complicated by the fact that most standard insurance policies don’t cover earthquake damage.  And then there’s Hurricane Irene, which is forecast to pass near or even through this area on Saturday – as a category 3 hurricane. Several of the current models put the center of the storm right through our county, but Irene is so big that even if it doesn’t officially make landfall, the whole Virginia/Maryland coastal and central area is likely to receive significant rain and wind. 
Earthquake, hurricane…what’s next?  I think I’d better get a fire extinguisher.
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By the way, for those of you who are wondering how an earthquake could happen in Virginia, and why a 5.9 causes more damage out east than it would in, say, California, the article below may be of interest:

3 Responses to “And the Earth Shook…”

  1. Lark

    Thank you! I saw your post about the minor damage at your house, so I gather you are all OK as well.

  2. CarolynJean

    Thankfully, yes, other than the freaked out kitty. We are still finding evidence of the shaking – mostly in the form of books that were shifted (in or out) on their shelves. I’m just glad that it wasn’t stronger.