Bloomberg News

Unusual East Coast Quake May Produce Aftershocks for Weeks

August 24, 2011

(Updates with off-site power restored at nuclear plant in eighth paragraph.)

Aug. 24 (Bloomberg) -- The 5.8-magnitude earthquake that surprised the U.S. East Coast with the biggest shake since 1988 may be followed by aftershocks for weeks, scientists said.

A 4.2-magnitude followup struck about six hours after the main temblor yesterday. While serious damage from the aftershocks is unlikely, “you could get a pretty good jolt,” Jack Boatwright, a U.S. Geological Survey seismologist in Menlo Park, California, said in a telephone interview.

The earthquake was the biggest in the East since a 5.9- magnitude tremor in Saguenay, Quebec, 22 years ago. It struck about 90 miles (144 kilometers) southwest of Washington. It prompted evacuation of landmarks such as the Lincoln Memorial and halted traffic in New York’s Holland Tunnel.

The quake struck at 1:51 p.m., near Mineral, Virginia, the survey said on its website. The shock was felt as far west as Columbus, Ohio, and as far north as Toronto. It was the strongest to hit the Virginia area since 1897, according to USGS data.

“All of a sudden I feel the table shaking,” Brian Loebig said by telephone from Chesterfield, outside Richmond. “I was doing laundry, so I thought maybe the spin cycle had got out of whack. It would have had to have been incredibly out of whack. It was maybe two minutes. The dog was going crazy.”

Jessica Abernethy, 22, of Rixeyville, was feeding her 3- year-old son when the house shook.

Nuclear Plant Shuts

“I’ve never experienced an earthquake,” Abernethy said in an interview. “I thought my father had hit the house with the tractor.”

About seven miles from the epicenter, Dominion Resources Inc.’s North Anna nuclear-power plant safely shut down its reactors, the company said in a statement. Off-site power has been restored, eliminating the need to rely on back-up generators, and the station remains on alert, the second-lowest of the four emergency classifications of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, according to a later statement.

A magnitude-9 earthquake near the coast of Japan in March produced a tsunami that knocked out cooling at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant north of Tokyo, causing three reactor meltdowns, in the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in 1986.

More than 20,000 people are dead or missing from the quake and tsunami. A magnitude-9 earthquake is about 63,000 times stronger than a 5.8 quake, according to the USGS.

Rattled Refrigerator

“We’re all just scared to death,” said Pam Harlowe, mayor of Mineral, a community with a population of about 430. The shock broke drywall at a school, dumped food into the aisles of grocery stores and knocked pictures off the walls of her house, Harlowe said by telephone.

“It sounded like an aircraft crashing into our house,” said Cathie Stewart, 21, a college student at home in Mineral with her father when the quake struck.

“It was rumbling so bad, it was like treading water,” said Tamara Grindheim, 53, who described bookcases falling over in her home and food rattling in the refrigerator.

Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell said he was working with federal, state and local agencies to assess the situation.

“All resources of the commonwealth have been put on alert to assist in any way necessary,” he said in a statement.

The quake occurred as residents of Mid-Atlantic states prepared for Hurricane Irene, which is forecast to hit the North Carolina coast this weekend.

Flights Delayed

Airline flights were delayed across the northeastern U.S. after the Federal Aviation Administration halted some operations at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, Newark Liberty International in New Jersey and Washington’s Reagan National Airport. Control towers at Kennedy and Newark were evacuated.

The Holland Tunnel connecting New York and New Jersey reopened after closing for about 30 minutes for inspection, said Ron Marsico, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the tunnel.

Verizon Communications Inc., AT&T Inc. and Sprint Nextel Corp. experienced a surge in phone calls and said they had no immediate reports of network damage.

In downtown Washington, jarred workers, unused to such temblors, gathered on street corners. The National Cathedral sustained “significant damage” to its central tower, said Richard Weinberg, a spokesman for the cathedral. Stones fell from three of four pinnacles, he said by telephone.

“I thought, ‘I just better get out of here,’” said Alex Vasquez, 25, whose 10th-floor office near the White House shook. He said he assumed it was a construction accident until he spoke with others fleeing the building.

‘Very Unusual’

“It’s very unusual for an earthquake of this size on the East Coast,” said Thomas Hillman Jordan, director of the Southern California Earthquake Center at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “It’s a moderate-size earthquake, and on the East Coast they tend to be felt over a much larger area.”

“This is a good reminder that even on the East Coast you want to be prepared,” he said in a telephone interview.

Amtrak service was disrupted after Washington’s Union Station was evacuated, said Steve Kulm, a spokesman. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority slowed all its trains to 15 miles an hour.

Some New York courthouses were evacuated, as was City Hall. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. cut short a press briefing on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case when the quake hit.

Offices Emptied

“We have so far no reports of any damage any place and let’s just hope that nobody got injured or killed,” New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in an interview outside City Hall after it was evacuated. The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.

In Trenton, New Jersey, the state Capitol shook for about a minute and offices emptied as those in the building rushed into hallways. The New Jersey Office of Emergency Management said there were few reports of damage.

In the Philadelphia area, where windows rattled and tall buildings swayed, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission sent inspectors to power plants and declared an “unusual event,” the lowest of NRC emergency classifications, said Diane Screnci, an agency spokeswoman in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.

The Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial were closed while engineers checked for damage, according to U.S. Park Police Sergeant David Schlosser.

Jim Maring of Middleville, Michigan, was nearing the end of a tour in the White House with his wife and three children when the floor started to shake.

“I thought, well our tour is now over,” said Maring, 40.

“The Secret Service and armed guards started telling us to leave, firmly,” said his wife, Barbara, 42, who at first feared it was a bomb. “Our kids won’t ever forget that experience.”

--With assistance from Ian King in San Francisco, Henry Goldman, Tina Davis, Natalie Doss, Mary Childs and Jennifer Oldham in New York, Terrence Dopp in Nj Statehouse, Angela Greiling Keane, Kristin Jensen, Richard Rubin, Nicole Gaouette, Michael Tackett, Jonathan D. Salant and Jim Snyder in Washington, Justin Blum in Wash Dc , Christopher Palmeri in Los Angeles, Olga Kharif in Portland, Mary Jane Credeur in Atlanta and Mary Schlangenstein in Dallas. Editors: Alex Devine, Randall Hackley

To contact the reporters on this story: Esme E. Deprez in New York at edeprez@bloomberg.net; William Selway in Washington at wselway@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at mtannen@bloomberg.net


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