Earthquake Shakes East Coast

A 5.9 magnitude earthquake shook the East Coast Tuesday. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the epicenter of the quake was about 40 miles northwest of Richmond, Va. Melissa Block talks to NPR's Chris Joyce for more.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block.

At 1:51 this afternoon, many people here in the eastern U.S. experienced something they have never experienced before, an earthquake.

SIEGEL: The 5.8 quake was modest, but it was felt as far away as Boston and Michigan. Some injuries have been reported and there were some structural damage. The epicenter was in central Virginia, near the town of Mineral. Eric Pritchett(ph) had just arrived at the local airfield on his motorcycle when it happened.

ERIC PRITCHETT: Both the ladies that work in here, they were in there - the airport manager and the other one were in their office and the building just started shaking. Both of them fell trying to get out. And I just helped them up and we all just evacuated the building quick as we could.

SIEGEL: Diane Miller(ph) was at work when she felt the quake. She's an attendant at the Louisa County Animal Shelter.

DIANE MILLER: Loud. It's just like rumble rumble. Some of the cat and puppy cages rolled across the floor. So, there is a little bit of structural damage and some of the concrete blocks have cracks.

SIEGEL: And Diane Miller says that she's been busy keeping her guests calm during the aftershocks.

MILLER: The cats are I think most affected. The cats are, you know, they're still hiding in their litter boxes, but I'm sure they will be until it's all over. The dogs settled down fairly quickly after the first major one.

BLOCK: And we're joined now by NPR's science correspondent Christopher Joyce. And, Chris, 5.8,by California standards, doesn't sound so big but there was a lot of shaking going on here in Washington. A lot of people evacuated out to the streets. How unusual is an earthquake like this on the East Coast?

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: Very unusual. In a word, rare. You know, hen's teeth rare. A geologist I talked to said they haven't seen anything like this or known anything like this in the past 50 years or so. It's not as if there aren't faults in the east. You know, millions of years ago, this was a tectonically active place but it's fairly stable now.

You know, just to give you an example of how surprised people were, I was talking to the head of geology at the College of William and Mary, which is in Virginia, not far from the epicenter. And during the quake, they were having a geology department meeting. And I asked them, you know, did you jump under the table like you're supposed to do or stand at a doorframe? And they said, no, we sat there slackjawed, we just, you know, we didn't know what to say or do. How could this be happening in Virginia?

BLOCK: Huh, they didn't believe it either. What are you hearing about reports of damage?

JOYCE: The federal government says it's nothing major, no fatalities. Nobody knows for sure how long that will hold out but so far, so good. There has been some structural damage to buildings and to roads, there's been changed schedules at airports and railways.

But I guess the most significant thing is that two nuclear reactors at a plant in Virginia, the North Anna plant, have been shut down. They lost electricity from the power grid and they're working on backup generators. The government says things are fine, they're working the way they should have.

BLOCK: And, Chris, what are geologists saying about the forces that may have set this earthquake off?

JOYCE: Well, this is the, you know, the big working backwards game that geologists love to play. And so far, they don't know a lot. They do think they've located the fault, it's called the Spotsylvania Fault - Spotsylvania is a part of Virginia. There have been quakes there, actually, as recently as 2003 but they were small, around 3.5 or 4.

As faults go it's not that big. But the one potential cause of this could be that what's happening in the middle of the Atlantic is there's this Mid-Atlantic Ridge - and think of the plate that the Atlantic Ocean sits on as separating and the western part of the plate is pushing into the North American plate, where we sit. You know, our plate is full of little cracks, hairline cracks, that's what these faults are. And as you push that plate into our plate it's putting stress on those cracks and, you know, the Spotsylvania plate was one of them and it built up pressure and that's what happened.

BLOCK: And, Chris, help us understand one thing here. The quake was relatively small - 5.8 but was felt over a really huge area, reports down in South Carolina up to New York and Boston, out to Michigan, as we mentioned, of people who felt this thing. Why is that?

JOYCE: One geologist has been quoted as saying it very nicely, the East Coast is old and cold. What that means is that, sure, it's not very seismically active, but when you do get a quake, the shockwaves are transmitted very efficiently. If this quake were in California, it might have dissipated and lost its power more quickly because it's kind of a Swiss cheese arrangement of faults all over California. And when the shockwave hits faults, it tends to lessen or weaken a little bit. In the east, not as many faults and older, colder rocks and it just zips through the rock and goes farther and hits harder.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Chris Joyce, thanks very much.

JOYCE: Glad to be here.

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