Quake Rattles East Coast

Officials survey the damage after a rare earthquake strikes Virginia

August 24, 2011

Susy Ward (center) and her colleagues gather outside their office building in downtown Washington, D.C., moments after the earthquake struck on Tuesday afternoon.


As the earth rumbled beneath their feet, tens of millions of people along the East Coast wondered, What was that? The surprising answer: an earthquake! The rare quake, centered in Mineral, Virginia, struck just before 2 p.m. Eastern Time. It was felt in 20 states, from as far south as Georgia, as far north as Canada and as far west as Indiana. The magnitude 5.8 temblor was the strongest to hit the East Coast since 1944.

Fortunately, there were no serious injuries or known deaths. Offices and federal buildings were evacuated as alarmed workers spilled onto the sidewalks. In Mineral, debris and shattered window glass littered the streets, grocery stores were wrecked and homes were damaged. Many people, not wanting to return indoors, stayed outside even after the ground settled.

Mineral resident Carmen Bonano was at home with her 1-year-old granddaughter when the shaking began. “The fridge came down off the wall and things started falling,” Bonano said, her voice still quivering. “I just pushed the refrigerator out of the way, grabbed the baby and ran.”

Debris covers the floor of a grocery store in Mineral, Virginia, the epicenter of Tuesday’s quake.
Debris covers the floor of a grocery store in Mineral, Virginia, the epicenter of Tuesday’s quake.


An Unusual Event

Earthquakes are far less common on the East Coast than on the West Coast. In fact, since 1900, there have been 50 quakes measuring magnitude 5.8 or greater just in California. The largest East Coast jolt on record was a magnitude 7.3 quake that struck South Carolina in 1886. Tuesday’s tremor came a day after a strong earthquake caused minor damage in the Colorado area.

A few aftershocks, ranging in magnitude from 2.2 to 4.8, followed the Virginia quake. The U.S. Geological Survey says the tremor struck at a shallow 3.7 miles below the Earth’s surface and lasted 20-30 seconds. Scientists say they may never be able to map the exact location of the fault line, the point where the quake struck.

In Washington, D.C., the National Park Service closed all monuments until the structures could be inspected. No major damages were reported, but engineers did find a crack near the top of the Washington Monument. The 555-foot landmark will be closed until further notice. Washington’s National Cathedral also developed cracks and broken capstones. Several buildings in the nation’s capital remained closed on Wednesday.

For the most part, the quake mainly shook people’s nerves. Craig Fugate is the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He says the tremor served as a good reminder for residents to always be prepared. “We talk about hurricanes this time of year, but we forget that a) earthquakes don’t have a season, and b) they are not just a western hazard,” Fugate said in an interview on ABC’s Good Morning America

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