The reality of earthquakes

The reality of earthquakes

August 25th, 2011 in Opinion Times

Office workers gather on the sidewalk in downtown Washington, D.C., moments after a 5.9 magnitude tremor shook the nation's capitol Tuesday. The earthquake centered northwest of Richmond, Va., was felt as far north as Rhode Island, New York City and Savannah, Ga.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

The earthquake that jolted much of the East Coast on Tuesday wasn't the "big one," but it was strong enough to unnerve people in the nation's capital and surrounding area, to be felt from Canada to Georgia and to remind those who experienced it of the prodigious power of the fundamental forces of the physical world.

The quake, measured at magnitude 5.8, hit at 1:51 p.m. Its epicenter was near Mineral, Va., a tiny town about 84 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., not too far from Fredericksburg and Richmond. By objective standards, the quake was relatively light, but that type of measurement means little to those who felt the earth move, who saw buildings sway and who, for a moment at least, had to wonder if the shaking and rattling were natural or a manmade phenomena.

The latter worry can be forgiven at a time when the 10th anniversary of 9/11 is approaching. Truth is, though, the quake was a relatively minor event in the realm of seismology. Emergency coordinators in the states affected by the quake confirmed that. There were no reports of injuries, and though some buildings were damaged, most of the damage was relatively minor. Still, the tremor, rare in the region, was an eye-opener, and it temporarily disrupted the normal weekday routine of millions.

Within moments of the shock, buildings were evacuated, roads packed, and air and rail traffic interrupted. A nuclear power plant near the epicenter tripped off line automatically and suffered no damage. Regular cellphone service was compromised, but emergency communications networks continued to function normally.

By Wednesday, most everything had returned to a semblance of normalcy, though several buildings in Washington and elsewhere were closed as officials checked for structural problems. The major damage wrought by Tuesday's earthquake, it seems, was to complacency, not infrastructure.

Even so, millions in the region were concerned about the future. Many wondered if there would be aftershocks and if the Tuesday event was a precursor of additional, perhaps stronger, earthquakes to come. The answers are both reassuring and worrisome.

Yes, there likely would be aftershocks. Indeed, at least a couple of small ones already have occurred. What the future will bring is hard to predict. Quakes in the region are not unknown, but the relative few that do occur generally are small because they take place along old fault lines rather then new fault lines like those on the West Coast.

It is possible that stronger quakes could strike the region in the future, though the time and strength of such events are almost impossible to calculate. Tuesday's event, though, has prompted some local and state officials to ponder the need to strengthen building codes in a populous region where a powerful quake could cause major loss of life and extensive property damage.

That concern and other topics related to public safety and preparedness have a new urgency, but remain subjects of future discussion. What's far more immediate for millions of people after Tuesday is the certainty that an earthquake no longer is an abstract but a visceral reminder that the ground they stand on is neither as firm nor as unshakable as they once believed.