The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA


August 24, 2011

Earthquake causes trembling in Valley

SUNBURY — A 5.8-magnitude earthquake centered outside Richmond, Va., caused trembling in the Central Susquehanna Valley, leading to building evacuations and the closing of Northumberland County offices because of structural damage.

The 1:51 p.m. quake, which was centered in the town of Mineral, about 93 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., and about 260 miles south of Sunbury, was felt as far away as New York City and Michigan.

Although rare on the East Coast, it is not unheard of to have temblors here, said Robert Jacob and Mary Beth Gray, associate professors of geology at Bucknell University in Lewisburg.

In fact, there are little ones, imperceptible to most people, happening along the Appalachian Mountains frequently, Gray said.

The reason the Virginia quake was felt so far away from its source has to do with geology, Gray said.

“These rocks in Pennsylvania and the surrounding states are old and cold,” Gray said. “They’re strong and capable of transmitting seismic energy very, very long distances.”

To think of it another way, picture a steel beam, Gray said. If that beam was hit on one end with a hammer, the vibration would be easily felt on the other end.

But imagine if that beam was red hot.

“You’re not going to feel it at the other end if you beat on it with a hammer,” she said.

That’s why an earthquake of the same magnitude in California is experienced by a much smaller area, she said.

The intensity of the quake — what people actually saw and felt, a measure different than magnitude — changes depending on distance from the epicenter, Gray said.

In Mineral, thousands of reports were taken by the U.S. Geological Survey, which ranked the earthquake as a 7 on a 12-point scale in intensity.

In the Lewisburg area, there were more than 8,000 reports. The kind of window-rattling and shaking the Valley experienced ranked about a 3 on the same scale.

Jacob said much depends on location — what kind of building people are in or ground they are on when the quake hits.

“I was on the second floor of the building, and saw a free-standing cart shaking in my office,” he said. “People on the first floor didn’t even feel it at all.”

Buildings cracked

In Sunbury, things weren’t so calm.

Northumberland County Commissioner Vinny Clausi knew something was wrong when employees ran from their second floor offices in the Administration Building.

Moments earlier, at 1:51 p.m., he was standing near his office speaking with two secretaries when one of them good-naturedly admonished Clausi for shaking her desk.

They quickly determined it might be an earthquake and their suspicions were confirmed when people started fleeing their second-floor offices.

While inspecting the building for any damage, Clausi and Chief Clerk Gary Steffen found a 20-foot-long crack in a room where a public meeting had been held less than an hour earlier.

“It wasn’t like that when we had our meeting,” Steffen said.

Initially, Commissioners Clausi, Frank Sawicki and Merle Phillips called for the evacuation of all county buildings.

Later, several other smaller cracks were found throughout the Administration Building’s interior and exterior and the decision was made to close all county offices.

“We had to do it as a precaution for the safety of our employees,” Clausi said.

An engineer from Larson Design Group, Williamsport, came out late Tuesday afternoon to inspect several county buildings, including the courthouse and Human Services Complex to determine if any structural damage occurred as a result of the quake.

The Administration Building might need repairs, but it and other county buildings are safe, the engineer found. County offices will be open during normal business hours today.

Scott Danowsky, of Lewisburg, said he was in the middle of a hearing at the Northumberland County Courthouse when the courtroom shook and things came to a halt.

“We felt it in the chairs, you could feel them move,” Danowsky said afterward in Cameron Park. “We didn’t see anything move, but everything just stopped.”

Tina Sones, of Turbotville, said she was on the stand when the room began to shake.

“We were all looking at each other, like ‘Why is this shaking?’ ” she said.

Attorney Rachel Wiest Benner, of Sunbury, said those around her were in disbelief.

“We were in the middle of a hearing,” she said. “I can’t believe it was really an earthquake.”

‘It was intense’

Elsewhere in the Valley, emergency services centers in Snyder, Union, Northumberland and Montour counties said they received numerous phone calls from residents reporting the quake.

However, there were no reports of damage.

At Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, students, faculty and staff were sent text message alerts advising them of the quake and to evacuate buildings. Also, warning sirens went off on campus, said sophomore Bradleigh Rhodes, 19, of Marlborough, Conn., who was in the Garrett Sports Complex when the temblor started.

Part of the building was once the school’s old gymnasium that has been renovated into meeting space and racquetball courts. It began to vibrate while Rhodes and others members of the school’s cheerleading team were getting ready to start afternoon practice.

“The windows, the floors, the racquetball courts started shaking,” she said. “It was intense.”

At Bucknell University, the school sent out text messages and emails to students, faculty, staff and parents regarding the quake, spokeswoman Julia Ferante said.

School President John Bravman, who is originally from California, also sent out an email saying what happened was an earthquake, but encouraging everyone to remain calm.

At the Sunbury Municipal Building, CareerLink employees, who were moving into their new location on the third floor, stopped what they were doing and left the building. Director Sue Snyder said it was precaution until they were sure what had happened.

Cheryl Delsite, of Sunbury, who works for Mayor David Persing, said she no sooner felt her desk and chair move than she started fielding phone calls from concerned residents.

“I went through one once while visiting in Alaska,” Delsite said. “This is exactly how it feels,” describing it as an almost seasick type of feeling.

At the Pennsylvania Dutch Market, a few doors down from the courthouse on Market Street, Natalie Zeigler, of Sunbury, said the front window rattled and things began to move.

“We thought we were going nuts,” she said. “I’m glad I wasn’t the only one to feel it.”

State Rep. Lynda Schlegel Culver, R-108, of Sunbury, said she was on the phone in her office when the quake hit.

“They told me something was wrong because they felt the building shaking,” she said of her call. “I told her to get off the phone and go see what was happening. They called me back and let me know everyone was alright.”

U.S. Rep. Tom Marino, R-10, of Cogan Station, was touring the Furmano’s factory in Point Township when the ground began to shake.

“I know from when I worked in a factory that a shaking feeling like that usually means a trailer hit the building, but when I asked, they said no. They didn’t think that was it,” he said. “We found out later that it was an earthquake.”

Marino added he called Washington to make sure everyone was OK.

Despite initial reports, Evangelical Community Hospital in Lewisburg did not have an evacuation, spokeswoman Lizz Hendricks said. Hospital officials are inspecting the structure and are monitoring the situation.

There were no reports of damage or injuries at any Geisinger medical facility and no evacuations, said spokeswoman Marcy Marshall.

“Our facilities team is confident that our buildings are safe and sound,” she said.

State officials react

Bridge inspectors in each of the state Department of Transportation’s 11 districts are doing precautionary inspections of bridges around the state as a result of the quake.

“We have no reason to believe the Virginia earthquake caused major damage to any state roadways or bridges,” said Scott Christie, PennDOT’s deputy secretary for highway administration. “But to err on the side of caution, we are assessing those bridges that could be susceptible to quake damage.”

The first bridges to be inspected are those that are at least 200 feet or longer and at least 60 feet high. PennDOT is starting these inspections today and will continue through at least Thursday.

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission reminded residents to call 911 should they smell or hear natural gas leaking.

The PUC also is working with natural gas utilities throughout the state to monitor the safety of the system. The state’s natural gas utilities are checking their systems for leaks by using specialized equipment to conduct leak surveys while monitoring pressure changes on the system.

No directions or orders were given to drilling operations in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale region as a result of the quake, the state Department of Environmental Protection said Tuesday. The agency also had no reports of problems from drilling operators following the quake.

— Reporters Joseph Deinlein, Marcia Moore, Evamarie Socha and Francis Scarcella contributed to this report.

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