A powerful earthquake rocked the Mid-Atlantic region Tuesday afternoon, hitting areas from North Carolina to as far as away Ottawa, Canada.
The earthquake, which hit at about 1:51 p.m. ET, measured a preliminary 5.9 and lasted up to 45 seconds, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It shook office buildings and homes and rattled residents. The USGS warned of aftershocks.
Its epicenter was reported about 4 miles southwest of Mineral, Va., near Richmond, Va., and about 80 miles south of Washington, D.C.
Witnesses reported a low rumble that grew to distinct and sustained shaking, rattling windows and fraying nerves.
“It scared the heck out of me. I’m still shaking,” said Joan Morris, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation.
No injuries were reported. A nuclear power plant near Lake Anna, Va., was shut down in a precautionary measure.
Twitter lit up with personal earthquake reports up and down the east coast.
One twitter user, @allisonkilkenny, a blogger and contributing reporter for The Nation, wrote: “Weirdest moment: Seeing the people I’m following in DC tweet ‘earthquake’ seconds before I felt it here in NYC.”
Sonia Spence, a data transcriber for the U.S. Department of Citizenship and Immigration Services in Manhattan, said she had just returned to her desk on the fourth floor of 26 Federal Plaza when the building began to sway.
“I thought, ‘What could be shaking the building like this?’ My first thought was a terrorist,” she said
Spence, a legally blind Bronx resident, said she dropped her purse which contained her cell phone, hurrying downstairs and outside.
The earthquake was one of the largest ever recorded in the Washington, D.C., area. The depth of the quake was only 0.6 miles which partly explains the widely-felt shaking.
In “the East Coast you have this old, hard, cold crust that does a lovely job of transmitting the waves … the energy … this large of an eathquake. could definitely have been felt hundreds of miles away,” said Lucy Jones a seismologist with the USGS.
“Central Virginia does get its share of minor earthquakes, but an earthquake of this size on the East Coast is certainly very unusual,” says seismologist Karen Fischer of Brown University.
Virginia is not on an active earthquake fault and is roughly in the middle of the North American continental crustal plate, she says. But it has residual fault scars left over from 200 to 300 million years ago, when it was an earthquake zone, at the time when the Atlantic Ocean rifted apart from Europe.
“We are just seeing pressure build up and release on those scars,” Fischer says. “There is a lot of debate on exactly what is going on down there and exactly how quakes this big happen in this kind of crustal zone.”
Because the crust under the East Coast is colder and firmer than the West Coast, shocks travel more efficiently through it, accounting for the widely-felt shaking. Fischer says the shallow depth of the Virginia quake, .6 miles, is only a first estimate and will likely be revised.
“One lesson of this quake is that building codes will likely need to be revisited on the East Coast,” Fischer says. “Because we are not as conscious of earthquakes here as the West Coast and we will have to see about structural damage to buildings, although I have not heard any damage reports so far.”
Officials in the region scrambled to evacuate buildings.
The control towers at John F. Kennedy and Newark Liberty airports were evacuated by the Fenderal Aviation Administration as a precaution, an FAA spokesman said. Flights out of both airports were cancelled.
The State Department building in the Foggy Bottom area of Washington evacuated, public affairs specialist Urenia Young said in an e-mail. “We are out of the building,” she wrote.
Halley Pack, 24-year-old paralegegal, was putting on her sneakers in the basement-level gym of her office building in downtown Washington, when the shaking started. She said she didn’t realize that it was an earthquake at first.
“I’ve never been in an earthquake before,” she said, standing in her exercise clothes outside her office building at 2:20 p.m. “I thought something was wrong with me, like I had a headache.” Pack said she even jumped on the elliptical trainer for a few minutes before officials announced that the building was being evacuated.
Outside, dozens of office workers milled about comparing notes and trying to reach friends and family members on their mobile phones.
Pack’s colleague Caitlin Shea, 22, said she was at her desk when the earthquake struck. “The filing cabinets started shaking. I thought they would topple on us.”
She was nervous about re-entering the 12-story building where they work. “I’m afraid of aftershocks,” she said.
In North Carolina, the tremors sent light bulbs shaking in their fixtures, and brought people out into the street looking for a potential cause. Karen Schaefer was stopped at a traffic light in northern Raleigh when her 1995 Honda Accord began shaking.
“It felt like when you are sitting on a suspension bridge and you feel it swaying,” she said. “But I knew I wasn’t on a suspension bridge. I was like, ‘is this an earthquake?’ and I said, ‘No, this is Raleigh, N.C.’
“You hear about earthquakes in California
Dan Thompson, director of communications at Fork Union Military Academy, a military style boarding school in the village of Fork Union, Va., said the shaking was “pretty significant, but there was no damage or injuries. Just a few books knocked off the shelves.”
About 200 were on campus either as members of the football or soccer teams, or as part of the 60 cadet officers here for training. “”We want all our parents to know everyone is safe and there’s no danger at this point,” Thompson said.
“No need for any of that. Everything’s in good shape,” he said, then offering a quip about another natural event, Hurricane Irene, bearing down on the East Coast, “We’re already looking forward to the hurricane.”
Earthquakes happen everyday around the world. Most of the time, they are to small to record or notice. As scary or sad as it seems,Earthquakes are part of life and are suppose to happen. I try to remind my friends, Earth and Mother Nature call the shots, we just live here.
Check this graph out below:
With props to GeekOSystem and MSNBC director, Rob Katko, a U.S. Geological Survey map of earthquakes in the United States over the past week. Blue is for anything in the last day, yellow for anything within seven days.
Map: Our planet shakes a lot