Earthquake Shakes Much Of East Coast

Shortly before 2 p.m. an earthquake rattled NPR headquarters and a significant portion of the East Coast. The magnitude 5.9 quake was centered in Virginia, about 40 miles northwest of Richmond. NPR science correspondent Christopher Joyce reports on the aftermath.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host: Just before 2:00 Eastern Time, as we were getting ready for the show today, an earthquake rippled up and down the East Coast. The magnitude 5.9 quake was centered in Virginia, about 40 miles northwest of Richmond. But it could be felt far from the epicenter, including here in the studio. The Pentagon and White House were evacuated, so were air control towers at Newark International Airport and JFK in New York City. Flights there are delayed. Earthquakes do hit the East Coast, although large ones are rare.

Joining us here in Studio 3A is NPR science correspondent Christopher Joyce. Christopher, thanks for being here.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: I'm glad to be here, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: Give us a sense of how big is a 5.9 magnitude quake.

JOYCE: Well, compared to what happened to Japan a few months ago, quite small, you know, orders of magnitude smaller. Compared to what happened in the Indian Ocean, the 9.0 that caused the tsunami, or 9.2, whatever it was, it's quite small. But not all earthquakes are equal, and even in terms of magnitude. I mean, the fact that it's rare has - gives it a shock value, so to speak, that we're not used to this sort of thing. I mean, this sort of thing only happens once every few decades, if even every few centuries.

And so the other thing is that because the geology is different in the East Coast, you know, there are lots of faults, but it's not crisscrossed like, you know, jeez, the way that California is. And one of the things that and other - other features of the East Coast have is that it means that you feel it more. A 5.9 in this area is likely to be a little sharper and extend farther. I mean we heard that they felt this in New York and Boston. It will extend farther because it's different.

I also, I've been on the phone with geologists and seismologists saying, you know, what causes this sort of thing to happen, even if it's rare? And they really don't know. It's not like you've got these big tectonic plates bouncing around the way that they are in the Ring of Fire out in the Pacific, you know. I mean, think of big dinner table covered with dinner plates, you know, and that's what the Earth's crust is. And when they bounce against each other, they have these huge quakes. This is more like a crack inside of those plates. And, you know, there's been a, sort of, you know, stress along one of the cracks in those plates, and they don't really know where it comes from.

ROBERTS: We are hearing that air towers are evacuated. Are planes being grounded up and down the East Coast?

JOYCE: This I don't know. I've been talking to the geologists who have, you know, focused basically what's under the ground rather than what's - what's going up into the sky. But there certainly have been evacuations and that sort of thing. You know, we're hearing some things from AP, that two nuclear reactors, that the North Anna Power Station - that's in Virginia - were taken offline by safety systems just about the time of the quake. That's exactly, in fact, what happened in the tsunami and quake in Japan. These things go down automatically. Or when I say go down, they're safe...

ROBERTS: Shut down.

JOYCE: ...they're shut down automatically during a seismic event. So there's no worries as to whether there's damage or not. But they've apparently been shut down.

ROBERTS: And let's take a quick call. This is Jeff in Charlotte, North Carolina. Jeff, did you feel the quake all the way in Charlotte?

JEFF: Yes, ma'am.

ROBERTS: And what was your reaction?

JEFF: Well, I was in a meeting with a teacher and the next thing I know we were both just moving.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JEFF: And we were wondering. There's(ph) construction at the school I'm at and we thought it was that. And I went outside, there was a little earthquake party going on.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: What is exactly is an earthquake party?

JEFF: You know, just people celebrating the earthquake.

ROBERTS: And so it took you a little while to realize what it was.

JEFF: Yeah. Originally we thought they just had knocked down the building next door, but we were actually in a building probably from 1960s and it just shook. I mean, we - like she thought that - I cut my leg when I sit down, and she thought that I was shaking the room because of my leg.

ROBERTS: Jeff, thanks for your call. Well, we certainly hope that people are staying safe in this quake, especially on the East Coast, where you don't necessarily have it drilled into you about safety precautions.

JOYCE: And where buildings are not really built to withstand earthquakes.

ROBERTS: And right, buildings don't have the same seismic standards in places where this is more common. Apparently, all buildings had been closed on the Mall for safety reasons. And, of course, there's the ongoing risk of aftershocks. How likely is that, do you think?

JOYCE: Well, usually there are aftershocks. But by and large, the rule of thumb is, you know, there's a one in 10 chance of another reasonably sized quake after something this size. What you normally get the rest of the time are a whole bunch of little tiny shocks. Some might be - you know, you might feel them but, you know, geologists are likely to be the only ones that are going to really know and be able to detect them, but now - you know, that said, it is possible.

ROBERTS: And CNN is reporting that the National Cathedral here in Washington, D.C. has been damaged. AP is reporting that the National Park Service is closing all memorials and monuments, including the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, which was likely to have pretty large crowds on its first officially opened day today, and park service employees are being sent home early. So we will continue to stay on top of this. We hope everybody is staying safe.

And Christopher Joyce, we appreciate you giving us updates as it continues to develop. I imagine you'll be continuing to watch this story throughout the evening.

JOYCE: Right. I will. Thank you for having me.

ROBERTS: And that is Chris Joyce. He is a science correspondent for NPR.

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