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Central Pa. Damage Not Likely from Va.-Centered Earthquake, Penn State Prof Says

on August 23, 2011 4:11 PM

The 5.9-magnitude earthquake that originated near Washington, D.C., on Tuesday afternoon was probably not strong enough to cause any building damage in the State College area, a Penn State faculty member said.

In fact, "if you were driving in a car, you may not have felt it," said geosciences Professor Charles J. Ammon. He studies earthquakes.

Ammon was teaching a class at University Park when the 'quake struck shortly before 2 p.m. He was standing in a classroom and didn't feel the seismic activity himself, though his students -- who were seated -- did sense it, Ammon said.

Thousands -- if not millions -- of others across Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., felt it, too, according to news reports and social-media posts. For many, the trembling, quivering sensation lasted at least several seconds.

CNN, citing U.S. Geological Survey data, reported that the earthquake was centered in Mineral, Va., and began four miles underground.

Seismologists classified the intensity of ground-shaking in Mineral at a Level 6, or strong, Ammon said.

He said shaking at that level may be significant enough to damage buildings that aren't designed to accommodate significant seismic activity.

"This is probably the largest earthquake that's occurred there in the last few hundred years -- that we know of," Ammon said.

He said that area of Virginia sits atop the Central Virginia Seismic Zone, home to occasional reported earthquakes since the late 1700s.

But in central Pennsylvania -- well away from the epicenter -- the earthquake-related shaking intensity measured at a Level 4, or light, Ammon said.

He said building damage is very unlikely at that level.

Likewise, Ammon said, any aftershocks in the coming days or weeks probably won't be strong enough to be felt in Centre County.

Preliminary emergency-radio communications Tuesday afternoon suggested that some local power lines may have fallen during the earthquake.

However, the Centre County emergency-management director, Randy Rockey, said no serious earthquake-related problems had been confirmed.

"The ground shook. That's about it -- nothing real bad," Rockey said.

He said a number of county residents called emergency responders to report the seismic activity. Some residents may have seen books topple from their bookshelves, Rockey said.

At Penn State's University Park campus, some people voluntarily evacuated their buildings when they felt the earth quiver, university spokesman Geoff Rushton said.

Old Main, where he works, was among those where people escaped to the outdoors for several minutes.

"It was almost as though we were in a small room and the door was slammed very hard -- over a sustained period of time," Rushton said, explaining how the 'quake felt in Old Main. He said it lasted perhaps 10 seconds.

Workers and students quickly resumed their normal schedules, though. Rushton said he knows of no university event-schedule changes stemming from the earthquake.

But university police, the Office of Physical Plant and structural engineers are checking on facilities across the University Park campus, Rushton added.

"Obviously, we've got a lot of ground to cover," he said. No building damage was immediately reported at University Park.

No service disruptions were reported at University Park Airport, either. In State College borough, public-works Director Mark Whitfield said initial checks found no damage to major public facilities, including the downtown parking garages.

Also, building inspections performed at State College Area School District structures immediately after the earthquake uncovered no problems, Ed Poprik reported. He is the district's director of physical plant.

Ammon said the earthquake was the most detectable seismic event to reach central Pennsylvania in some time. A 5.0-magnitude earthquake recorded June 23, 2010, in the Ontario-Quebec border region was felt in State College, but not as dramatically as the one that developed Tuesday, he said.

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