Earthquake Sends Tremors From N.H. To N.C.

Aug 23, 2011
Originally published on August 23, 2011 6:23 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

A rare earthquake shook the East Coast this afternoon. The quake caused office workers in Washington, D.C. and other major cities to evacuate their buildings, pouring onto sidewalks. But so far, there are no reports of serious damage. As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, the quake was quite a shock to this usually stable region.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Shortly before 2 o'clock this afternoon, residents of Washington, D.C., felt the ground begin to shake. In the NPR headquarters, the quake began with a slow rolling motion and then really started to rock our building for several nerve-wracking seconds. Even for former West Coast residents, like this reporter, it was unnerving. And to longtime D.C. residents, like Etchins Neblet(ph), it was momentous.

ETCHINS NEBLET: I felt my life flash before my eyes and I'm not being dramatic.

ABRAMSON: Neblet works at Blackboard, a software company across the street from NPR in the Chinatown area. She says she's never felt anything quite like this.

NEBLET: Not at all. I've lived in D.C. all my life and never felt one.

ABRAMSON: Few people in this area have. The US geological survey says the quake was centered between Richmond and Charlottesville, Virginia, and the government pegged the quake at 5.8 in magnitude. Compare that the San Francisco Bay area quake of 1989, which came in at 6.9. But USGS scientist David Russ, says it's been a long time since Virginia has generated a quake this strong.

DAVID RUSS: There was a 5.9 in what we call the Giles County area in 1897, so this pretty much ties the record in historic time for an earthquake in this part of the country.

ABRAMSON: Russ says this was a shallow quake, one to two kilometers deep and that might make ground motion feel more intense. The quake was felt strongly up into New England. David Russ says there are other reasons why this kind of tumbler might shake a broader swath of ground than West Coast events do.

RUSS: The easty earthquake, the crust of the earth, rather, is a little bit older, a little bit cooler and it tends to propagate the seismic energy more efficiently, so you do tend to get long distances for felt events.

ABRAMSON: There was damage at one historic site. The National Cathedral in Washington is the second largest church in the country. This ornate gothic structure is known for elaborate stonework and carved gargoyles, but spokesman Richard Weinberg says some of that stone work has been damaged.

RICHARD WEINBERG: It appears that at least three pinnacles on the central tower have broken off. There's other minor structural damage to the buttresses and fallen pinnacles that appear to be on the grass on the west front and in the back on the east side on the apse lawn.

ABRAMSON: With damage light and no serious injuries, for many, the quake amounted to a strange diversion on a pleasant summer day. In Providence, Rhode Island, city hall worker Doreen Collins says it brought back memories.

DOREEN COLLINS: I felt the earth move. That hasn't happened to me in a long time. I've been married for quite a while, so I'll take earth movement wherever I can get it.

ABRAMSON: As one reader of the Philadelphia Inquirer's website put it, seriously, Earth, not cool. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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