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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Virginia earthquake rattles East Coast

Washington -- The second most powerful earthquake in Virginia's recorded history was felt by millions on the East Coast and prompted evacuations of office buildings and monuments in the nation's capital.
No major injuries were immediately reported after the 5.8 magnitude earthquake, which struck about 40 miles northwest of Richmond. The quake also disrupted cell-phone service in many areas.
"It's one of the largest that we've had there," said U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Lucy Jones.
Magnitude 2.8 and 2.2 aftershocks were recorded later in the afternoon, with others possible in coming weeks, officials said.
The quake, which struck at 1:51 p.m., was shallow -- just 3.7 miles deep -- and was located 88 miles southwest of Washington. The magnitude was initially reported as 5.8, then revised to 5.9, and then revised again back to 5.8.
Minor damage was reported in a few Virginia counties.
"We have received numerous calls for structural damage and collapse of residential structures," Louisa County spokeswoman Amanda Reidelbach told CNN.
Desi Fleming, a resident of Mineral in Louisa County, said the quake arrived with a rumbling "that sounded like a train coming to a stop." It knocked down two chimneys on the converted 1900-vintage homethat now houses her parcel-shipping business.
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Laura Southard of the state Emergency Operations Center said light structural damage was reported in Culpeper and Orange counties, but there had been no reports of injuries in the state.
The North Anna nuclear power plant, which is the plant closest to the epicenter, was shut down and in a safe condition, a company official reported. There had been no release of nuclear material, Reidelbach said.
The plant, operated by Virginia Dominion Power, lost offsite power and was using backup generators to keep spent fuel cool, the NRC said. Nine other plants in four states have also declared "an unusual event," the lowest level of concern, but had not shut down, it added.
The FBI evacuated its buildings in Washington and New York, but people were returning to the 40-story New York facility by 3 p.m. At the Pentagon, police announced that anyone inside could "shelter in place" while security and emergency personnel checked the building for damage. Shortly thereafter, Pentagon workers who had left the building were allowed to return to their offices.
"The entire office just started swaying," said CNN's Chris Lawrence. "As you stood up, you could literally feel that the entire Pentagon was moving underneath you." He said it lasted 10 to 12 seconds.
The White House and adjacent buildings evacuated as a precaution following the earthquake were later given the all-clear, the U.S. Secret Service said.
U.S. Park Police spokesman David Schlosser said investigator arechecking reports that the iconic Washington Monument was damaged or leaning because of the earthquake. To his eye, he said, it is "clearly not leaning. It's standing tall and proud."
Some landmark buildings in Washington did suffer damage.
At Washington's National Cathedral, spokesman Richard Weinberg said three 5- to 8-foot pinnacles had broken from the central tower. He said stone masons and engineers would assess the damage, which also included other pieces that broke and fell on the surrounding lawn.
The building was evacuated and closed to the public.
Wayne Clough, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, said the national museum's landmark castle on the Mall had cracks in interior walls. There was no immediate indication of structural damage, but the 150-year-old building will need closer examination, he said.
"You want to do an inspection to be sure about that," Clough said.
Clough, who's also an earthquake engineer, said the geography of the Eastern Seaboard helped transmit the shock from the Carolinas to New England. The underlying bedrock is largely a solid sheet, "so you get a lot more travel out of earthquake waves than you would in California," he said.
A number of other buildings were evacuated, as far away as North Carolina and New York, witnesses reported.
In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo issued a statement saying, "Currently, there have been no reports of damage to buildings, bridges, roads, power grids, the Indian Point nuclear power plant, or other infrastructure."
Court buildings in downtown New York were evacuated. "I was trying to figure out what was going on, like everyone else," said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, who said he had been through many earthquakes when he lived in California. But such quakes are rare on the East Coast, USGS's Jones said.
"My first thought was, 'Was it a bomb? An earthquake?'" said CNN's Susan Candiotti, who was covering Vance's news conference on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case in New York. When the shaking started, reporters evacuated the building.
"Our building was shaking the way a skyscraper isn't supposed to shake," said a lawyer in a high-rise in midtown Manhattan.
But at the New York Stock Exchange, trading continued.
The quake was also reported to have been felt on the island of Martha's Vineyard, where President Barack Obama was playing golf.
Jones said that she would expect to see "significant damage" to old brick buildings near the epicenter. "If you've already got some damage, you might want to stay outside," she said.
She also raised concern that water and gas lines may have been damaged.
The earthquake slowed but didn't halt major transportation services.
Service at major airports throughout the region was disrupted, but all were reported to have resumed normal operations about 75 minutes after the earthquake struck.
At John F. Kennedy International Airport and Newark-Liberty International Airport, control towers were evacuated, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said.
Amtrak service between Washington and Baltimore was disrupted, with speed restrictions imposed.
Power outages were reported in parts of Prince Georges County in Maryland.
The District of Columbia Fire Department ordered its units to leave their firehouses and inspect the buildings in their districts for damage.
In northern Virginia's Fairfax County, no infrastructure damage was immediately reported.
Brendan Wein, a sales representative at Hoffman Nursery in Roxboro, North Carolina, said he first sensed rattling inside the building.
"We were thinking it was a helicopter overhead," Wein said. "I was literally shaking in my chair."
Tish Walker, in Spotsylvania, Virginia, said she was spooked and staying outside for the moment.
"I used to live in California, so I know shaking and this felt big," she said. "I grabbed my dog and raced outside; my first thought is always that the furnace might explode or a cabinet crashes down on top of us."

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