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Earthquake rocks East Coast

Virginia quake creates evacuations, minor injuries, across wide area.

MINERAL, VA (UPI) | August 23, 2011

An earthquake rattled central Virginia Tuesday, briefly causing a power shutdown at a nuclear plant and emptying the White House in nearby Washington.

The 5.8-magnitude quake was the strongest in Virginia in more than a century, and shook cities all along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. U.S. emergency officials said there were no reports of major damage, but cellphone usage was congested and the public was asked to use e-mail instead.

The White House said President Obama, on vacation in Martha's Vineyard off Massachusetts, held a conference call with Cabinet secretaries and advisers "to discuss the earthquake and the status of critical infrastructure."

"The president was told that there are no initial reports of major infrastructure damage, including at airports and nuclear facilities and that there were currently no requests for assistance," the White House said.

The earthquake caused the evacuation of thousands of office buildings in the eastern United States and closed national museums and monuments in Washington so they could be checked for damage. School buildings in Bedford, PA, were briefly evacuated and schools in two small towns near the epicenter were closed through Wednesday to allow a full inspection of the buildings. Initial reports indicated there were cracked walls and other damages.

The U.S. Geological Survey, said the epicenter of the quake was 34 miles northwest of Richmond, Va., and 87 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. It was the strongest quake in Virginia in more than a century.

The quake struck at 1:51 p.m. at a depth of 3.7 miles. Several aftershocks were reported.

In Charlottesville, VA, the quake caused a natural gas line to rupture. It also knocked out the 911 emergency phone service to Charlottesville and Albemarle County according to the Daily Progress.

The quake was felt as far away as Detroit and New York City, where minor damage was reported. A government building in Mineral, VA, near the quake's epicenter, was reportedly destroyed. Emergency officials said roads and bridges and major transportation hubs were being inspected.

There were no immediate reports of serious injuries.

The Virginia Times-Dispatch said the epicenter was not far from Dominion Virginia Power's North Anna nuclear plant. The quake knocked out power, but the utility said it had manually shut down both nuclear units without incident.

"We did lose on-site power, but all the diesel generators are up and running," Dominion spokesman Richard Zuercher told the newspaper 30 minutes after the quake. "Everything appears to be operating just fine."

In Richmond an 11-story apartment building for the elderly was evacuated after a police reported buckling bricks and an quake-damaged stairway.

In Washington, the National Cathedral was reported to have been damaged and office building across the region reported falling lights and ceiling tiles. To the north, chimneys in several row houses in Baltimore were reported to have collapsed.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency issued a statement saying it was closely monitoring the situation.

"Though there are no early reports of major damage or requests for assistance at this time, preliminary damage assessments are currently taking place in all affected states and we will continue to work closely with their emergency management officials," the statement said.

"Due to overload of cellphone usage, there are reports of cellphone congestion," the statement added. "We request that members of the public use e-mail or text messages if possible to communicate for the next few hours, except in cases of emergency, so that emergency officials can continue to receive and respond to urgent calls."

Though Amtrak train service along the Northeast Corridor north of Baltimore to Boston -- including Acela Express, Northeast Regional, Keystone Service and Springfield Shuttle -- was operating at normal speed, service from Baltimore to Washington and points south was operating at reduced speed as railroad infrastructure was inspected.

The streets of downtown Washington were filled with thousands of people as buildings from the Capitol to the White House were evacuated, The New York Times reported.

Pennsylvania Avenue from Capitol Hill to the White House was filled with evacuated workers and tourists, none showing panic, the Times said.

Several buildings in New York City also were evacuated, and the tremors were reported on Twitter from Martha's Vineyard off Massachusetts -- where President Obama and his family were vacationing -- Pittsburgh and Milwaukee.

Four miles from the quake's epicenter, residents of Mineral, Va., reported extensive damage to items inside homes, the Times said. Mineral has about 500 people.

The tremors were also felt in Boston. John D. Tuerck told the Times he felt "a discernible swaying on the 18th floor" of his office tower -- "Not something one expects here, for sure."

In Rockville, Md., 10 miles north of Washington, the quake was felt for 20-30 seconds. It started slowly but built into an event that shook houses. One man said he could see the windows on neighbors' houses shake.

Lea Cook was on the telephone in her fifth-floor office in Upper St. Clair, south of Pittsburgh, when the building started to shake.

"My heart stopped," she said. "I flew down five flights of stairs to get outside."

In Bedford County, in south central Pennsylvania, students were evacuated from school buildings when the quake hit.

UPI's Gerry Harrington said he was in a Panera Bread restaurant in Kingston, N.Y., about 90 miles north of New York City when he "realized the table was rocking and the floor was undulating. I didn't know what to make of it at first. I looked around and saw the restaurant's hanging lights swinging. I quickly got up and left the restaurant, still not sure what was going on but thinking parts of the building might collapse. I asked people eating outside if they felt the Earth move and they said yes. The whole thing was a very strange, disorienting experience."

The quake stopped a tennis event in New Haven, Conn., and shook the field during an afternoon baseball game between the Mariners and Indians in Cleveland.

Play at the New Haven Open on the campus of Yale University was stopped after the shock of the earthquake shook the stadium. The building was also evacuated and matches resumed after a about three hours

The Virginia quake followed an 5.2-magnitude quake in Colorado Monday night. The quake struck at 2.5 miles depth, about 180 miles south of Denver and was the strongest in the area in more than 40 years.

While unusual, the earthquake was not the largest temblor to hit the Eastern U.S. In 1886, an earthquake estimated to have been a magnitude of 7.3 hit Charleston, S.C., killing at least 60 people and destroying approximately 2,000 buildings.

Copyright 2011 United Press International, Inc. (UPI). Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.

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