A 5.8 magnitude earthquake originating in the Charlottesville-Richmond area of Virginia Tuesday afternoon was felt by a number of Tri-Cities residents. Officials say the quake was unique and may show signs of future activity.
Chris Gregg, associate professor of geology at East Tennessee State University, said it was the largest earthquake to occur in the Virginia seismic zone in recorded history. Because it was shallow, measuring about 3.5 miles below the surface at the epicenter, the quake was felt miles away from the source.
“Earthquakes of this magnitude out on the West Coast wouldn’t be felt quite as much,” Gregg said. “Here, the rock is older and energy is transmitted quite easily through the rock, much of it which is billions years old.”
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, Tuesday’s quake occurred at 1:51 p.m. and shook much of Washington and was felt as far north as Rhode Island and New York City.
Gregg said earthquakes represent the release of elastic strain that has been built up over decades to hundreds of years. When it is released, the energy radiates out in different forms and directions. Some of it is absorbed by rock, while some is released at the surface, resulting in shaky buildings and roads, and another portion of it is applied to neighboring faults.
Some people living and working in the Tri-Cities reported feeling tremors from the Virginia-based quake. The type of ground below a person, the structure he or she may be in and loose articles like picture frames and china may be a factor when it comes to feeling the shakes, Gregg said.
The tremors were especially noticeable on the third floor of Citizens Bank’s main branch on Broad Street in Elizabethton.
“We felt a little bit of vibration,” said the bank’s marketing director, Julie Fleenor. “We didn’t know what was going on.”
Fleenor said the bank has designated key personnel to take charge of their sections in an emergency and each decided to evacuate the building until the source of the vibration was known. As part of the bank’s evacuation plan, the employees took the stairs rather than the elevator.
Within minutes of the evacuation, the employees learned of thee distant earthquakes and the short recess was quickly over.
Fleenor said the evacuation lasted about five minutes. She said despite the unusual circumstances the employees had treated the evacuation as a routine procedure thanks to prior training and planning.
Mary Gregg of Washington County was sitting at home when she felt the tremors. Unsure of what happened, she checked to make sure everything was OK. Though shaken up a bit, she noticed no damage.
“The couch and the glass table was just shaking,” Gregg said.
Gregg lives near the intersection of Baldridge and Ballard roads in Washington County. She said her home is on a slight hill. Gregg said a tornado earlier this year knocked down 14 trees there, and she thought another twister had come when the quake struck.
Kenneth Haynes lives on the slope of Holston Mountain off Tenn. Highway 91. He felt the earthquake despite his home having concrete walls and floors reinforced with steel rebar.
Haynes said the shaking happened twice, only a few seconds apart.
“I’ve never experienced that before,” Haynes said. “It felt like someone walking across the floor. But that’s impossible because my floors are 22 inches thick.”
The earthquake didn’t disrupt court hearings at the Washington County Justice Center, and few people reported feeling it. But inside Judge Robert Cupp’s courtroom, clerk Tammy Tipton and two court officers, Deputy Louis Cunningham and Deputy Vernon Story, all said they felt the building shake.
“My chair trembled,” said Tipton, who sits beside the judge during hearings. Cupp said he didn’t feel the shaking.
Tipton said her first thought was of an earthquake, “but I though it was impossible.” A quick phone call, however, confirmed her first impression.
Because of the similarities between the Virginia seismic zone and the one in Tennessee, Tuesday’s quake indicates a need for further evaluation.
“There’s so much more energy released, it’s going to cause us to really begin to look seriously at what is the real seismic hazard, or threat for earthquakes, in this region of the United States,” Gregg said. “From that new investigation, we want to know what’s the risk to the people and the community members.” Although there is a threat for future quakes, Gregg calls for preparation instead of fear.
“It gives us reason to prepare, it tells us as political figures, as community decision makers and as individuals, the maximum earthquake that we might expect is larger than what has occurred historically,” he said. “But we don’t want to jump on this bandwagon and just start thinking about these ridiculously large earthquakes. Again, this earthquake that occurred today (Tuesday) occurs very infrequently, so let’s not all the sudden think these things will be happening everyday.”
To report personal experiences regarding Tuesday’s earthquake, visit “Did you feel it?” a Website of the U.S. Geological Survey—http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/dyfi/.
Staff Writer Becky Campbell and Elizabethton Bureau Chief John Thompson contributed to this report.