Tremors From Virginia Quake Send Shivers Through U.Va.

August 23, 2011 — First-year students at the University of Virginia will never forget their first day of class. Nor, for that matter, will anyone else.

A 5.8 earthquake centered near Mineral, between Charlottesville and Richmond, shook Central Virginia at around 1:50 p.m. Tuesday.

The rumbling continued for what seemed like 15 or 20 seconds. "I was outside in Brown College when I felt it hit," said Charles Eckman, a second-year student in the Engineering School. "At first, I thought it was a train – then I realized there was no train that would make that much noise."

He was on his phone at the time with someone in the Observatory Hill Dining Hall "who felt it at almost the same time."

During An Earthquake
  • When you first feel shaking, immediately take cover under something sturdy: under your desk, in the hallway, or in your door frame; Cover your head.
  • Do not attempt to walk during the quake; you may be thrown to the ground.
  • Do not try to go outside. The area immediately surrounding any building is extremely hazardous due to falling objects (trees, wires, bricks) and breaking glass.
  • If you are outside when a quake starts, move away from the sides of buildings, overhead power lines, chimneys, antennas, etc. Drop to the ground and protect your head.
  •  Accept that you will be frightened. There will be a great deal of noise, and the lights, except for emergency lighting, may go out.
  • Expect the intensity of the shaking to fluctuate. It may increase and decrease several times before subsiding. Wait a few seconds after the shaking stops before leaving your protection.

Don Sundgren, U.Va.'s chief facilities officer, said Tuesday afternoon that any damage so far appears minimal. "We're checking buildings and bridges systematically but quickly," he said. "Nothing appears to require immediate attention."

He said surface cracking in some buildings is likely, and he wouldn't be surprised at some water leaks. The Rotunda shook, but was unscathed. The Academical Village appears sound, he said.

Earthquakes are extremely unusual for our area, especially ones of the magnitude experienced Tuesday, said Marge Sidebottom, director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness. "While a pre-scripted earthquake message is not presently in our UVa Alerts messaging bank, serious consideration will be given to adding one," she said.

She added, "We're better off trying to train people on what to do if they feel an earthquake. You have to have done your homework and know how you're going to react.

"If you are from California you know exactly what to do.  We don’t have the experience to trigger our individual response.”

In fact, many people went outside, which is not usually advisable. "There are a couple of schools of thought," Sidebottom said. "We would generally expect that you would shelter under a sturdy object like a desk, following the drop-cover-hold-on method, because going outside can be more of a problem if things are falling on you. If you can get out in an open area that would probably be OK; if you can't, you're better off underneath something heavy."

The Health System reported no damage or disruption in patient care. At the Health System's dialysis center in Zion Crossroads, which was closer to the epicenter, patients were able to complete their procedures, and then the center closed for the day, said Peter Jump, director of public relations.

Kirk Martini, an associate professor in the School of Architecture, said he was in a meeting when the tremors started. "We had a similar earthquake in 2003 centered in about the same place," he said. "I had the same feeling then that it must be a train going by."

In a quake like Tuesday's, he said, "You would mainly be concerned about older masonry buildings. Buildings that are well maintained, though, will do well. For this level of shaking, they can pretty much take it."

Martini and geologist Tom Biggs in the College of Arts & Sciences were affected in another way: Reporters calling for expert comments. And calling.

When Biggs got back to his office after a class, the phone began ringing. By 5 p.m. he had heard from about six news outlets. He did an interview with CBS19 and was scheduled to do a phone interview just before 6 p.m. on WAMU public radio in Washington, D.C.
A lecturer in the Department of Environmental Sciences, Biggs calls himself a "jack-of-all-trades" in geology. "Seismology is not my area of expertise," he said, "but I can talk knowledgeably about it."

He said a 5.8 magnitude earthquake is pretty substantial given the nature of the bedrock in the region, and he isn't surprised the quake was felt well up the East Coast and fairly far to the south. He said the quake occurred in a fault zone, common in the East, rather than along a fault line like in California. It was shallow, so its energy was "augmented" by that lack of depth, sending vibrations out along the bedrock to the north and south and somewhat to the west.

Biggs said he felt the earthquake just as he completed teaching a class in Gibson Hall on geo-hazards.
"I wish it would have happened about 15 minutes earlier," he said. "It would have made for a great class discussion."

– by Marian Anderfuren

Media Contact

Marian Anderfuren

Director of Media Relations U.Va. Media Relations