Patt Morrison for August 23, 2011

The East Coast gets earthquakes too: 5.9 in Virginia rattles buildings & nerves

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David McNew/Getty Images

Looking straight up from inside a slot canyon, layers of earth that are pushed into vertical positions by the collision of the Pacific and North American tectonic plates are seen.

What passes for a mild trembler on the West Coast has certainly caught the attention of East Coasters after a 5.9 earthquake struck Virginia this afternoon, with the epicenter about 87 miles southwest of Washington D.C. It was enough to cause some damage in the D.C. area, including a partial collapse of a Department of Homeland Security building and some falling spires at the National Cathedral, and send office workers scurrying onto the streets. From the White House to Congress and the Pentagon, offices were evacuated and people poured out onto sidewalks, many of them having experienced their first earthquake. Truth is there are several major fault lines that run up the East Coast and also through the Midwest—one of the biggest earthquakes to strike in U.S. history actually hit on a fault under Missouri, a 8.0 quake along the New Madrid fault line in 1812. There’s a big fault running right under Manhattan, although the last earthquake there was in 1884. So while California likes to claim ownership over staring down earthquakes with steely-eyed determination there is obviously room for East Coasters to join in the shaking. Do you feel any new sympathy for our shaken colleagues in Washington?


Kate Hutton, seismologist, Cal Tech

Jim Asendio, news director, NPR affiliate WAMU in Washington D.C.

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