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What we’ve learned since the 2011 Virginia earthquake

Just how common are strong East Coast earthquakes?
Published: Aug. 26, 2021 at 3:51 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 26, 2021 at 4:02 PM EDT
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(WDBJ) - Ten years ago this week, likely the most widely felt earthquake in American history occurred here in Virginia.

August 23, a magnitude 5.8 earthquake struck the small town of Mineral, leaving an estimated $200 to $300 million in damage in the US.

That included damage to the National Cathedral and the Washington Monument in DC, along with hundreds of other residential properties.

Dr. Martin Chapman, director of the Virginia Tech Seismological Observatory, has been studying the 2011 earthquake extensively, along with other strong earthquakes like it.

August 23, 2011
August 23, 2011(USGS)

“It was a very violent earthquake for its size,” said Dr. Chapman. “It had a lot of displacement. And the stress drop associated with it, in other words, the amount of strained energy that was released was very high for a magnitude 5.7 earthquake.”

Since the Louisa County earthquake, scientists have been trying to better understand the Central Virginia Seismic Zone—one of a number of ancient fault lines in the state of Virginia. Figuring out the likelihood when a large earthquake could occur again is extremely important to scientists.

“I hope a lot of the citizens in Central Virginia now are aware of the fact that earthquakes like that are really not that infrequent,” said Dr. Chapman. “An earthquake of that size will occur somewhere in Virginia or in the Middle Atlantic area about once every four to five hundred years.”

“An earthquake of that size will occur somewhere in Virginia or in the Middle Atlantic area about once every four to five hundred years.”

Dr. Martin Chapman, Director of Virginia Tech Seismological Observatory

Earthquakes have been reported along the East Coast since the colonial days. In fact, a magnitude 7.6 earthquake occurred in 1886 in Charleston, South Carolina killing over 100 people. Providing a cautionary tale for us.

While earthquakes in our region occur less frequently than other natural hazards like severe weather or floods, being prepared for anything is the best course of action.

Dr. Chapman says to stay inside whatever building you are in and get under a sturdy desk or table. He says falling debris is a big hazard outside buildings. Coming up in October, Virginia will take part in the Great Southeast ShakeOut earthquake drill.

The main goal of the event is to get Southeasterners prepared for major earthquakes. If you’d like more information, visit here.

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