"Once-in-a-century" quake rocks Virginia

By Bob Lewis and Zinie Chen Sampson | Chron.com | August 23, 2011

Debris covers the isle at the Miller's Mart food store in Mineral, VA, after a magnitude 5.8 earthquake hit the area.A powerful, "once-in-a-century" earthquake rocked Virginia Tuesday, rattling highrises in Richmond and shutting down two nuclear power reactors within 10 miles of the epicenter, but sparing the state major injuries or damage.

Gov. Bob McDonnell and public safety officials said initial reports following the powerful 5.8-magnitude quake indicate its impacts were minimal.

"The very good news is the damage and any injuries have been very, very minor," McDonnell said in a news conference.

The Virginia Department of Transportation inspected roads and bridges but "there doesn't appear to be any significant infrastructure damage," McDonnell said Tuesday afternoon.

Virginia Dominion Power shut down its two-reactor nuclear power plant in Louisa County, but said there was no evidence of any damage to the decades-old North Anna Power Station.

"We have personnel walking through the power station to check for any type of damage," spokesman Jim Norvelle said. The reactor units were shut down manually by the power station's operators, following protocol, he said. Dominion's Surry nuclear power plant, located in southeast Virginia, was not taken off line although rumbles could be felt there, Norvelle said.

Hours after the quake, U.S. geologists and local residents reported milder tremblers, one measuring 4.8 magnitude.

Shirley Seay said she had just stepped out her house in Mineral when she felt the aftershock.

"It happened and just backed off," she said. "It was a big difference compared to the first one."

Seay she had been in a Mineral supermarket when the 5.8-trembler hit and bottles of beer and wine came tumbling from the shelves and crashed on the floor.

The quake rattled but did not stop primary election voting in a handful of Senate and House districts.

At a polling place a few miles from the epicenter, Mel Sandlin and two other election workers were in a lull between voters in Tuesday's low-turnout legislative primaries when the funeral home that served as a polling place began to quiver.

"I can't describe how loud the rumble was. It was as though a supersonic jet flew 3 feet overhead," he said. "We thought the building was coming down on us."

Christopher Bailey, a structural geologist at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, said the Mineral quake was a historic geologic event.

"This is a once-in-a-century earthquake, anyway you slice it" Bailey said, adding that quakes of a similar magnitude were based on estimates and before monitoring equipment was available.

The quake was centered in a region known as the central Virginia earthquake zone, which is seismically active but not on this scale.

In central Virginia near the quake's epicenter, pictures were toppled off walls and residents were shaken.

"It felt like a wave. I thought the walls were coming down and I'm not exaggerating," said Ann Battiste, who was sitting in a chair in her Louisa County home when the quake struck. She couldn't get up because her chocolate Labrador retriever Debbie and a tiny dog named Peanut were pinned against her terrified and both trying to get into her lap.

Battiste said pictures were shaken off the wall and several vases fell. A huge sheet of shattered glass that protected a painting that hung over the fireplace in the family room was still on the hearth.

"It was like the house was coming apart," Battiste said, who first thought it was an explosion in the basement or that a truck had hit house. "All these things flash through your mind in a matter of seconds."

Mineral, a tiny community within miles of the epicenter, is a major rail line and freight trains rumble through regularly. For an instant, some wondered whether one had derailed in their midst.

There were numerous reports of minor injuries mostly cuts and bruises and a smattering of emergency calls from terrified people complaining of chest pains, said Miranda Kellison of the Mineral Rescue Squad.