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East Coast earthquake created a 'new normal'

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staff, Gazette
August 23, 2012

— When the “Big One” rocked the East Coast one year ago, the earthquake centered on this rural Virginia town cracked ceiling tiles and damaged two local school buildings so badly that they had to be shuttered for good. Now as the academic year gets under way, students are reciting a new safety mantra: Drop, cover, and hold on.

Earthquake drills are now as ubiquitous as fire drills at Louisa County schools in central Virginia, where 4,600 students were attending classes when the 5.8-magnitude quake struck nearby on Aug. 23, 2011. Miraculously, no one was seriously hurt.

“It’s the new normal,” Superintendent Deborah D. Pettit said of the earthquake drills. “It’s become a normal part of the school routine and safety.”

One such drill is planned for Thursday at 1:51 p.m. EDT — the precise moment a year ago when the quake struck.

The unexpected jolt cracked the Washington Monument in spots and toppled delicate masonry high atop the National Cathedral. The shaking was felt far along the densely populated Eastern seaboard from Georgia to New England.

While West Coast earthquake veterans scoffed at what they viewed as only a moderate temblor, last year’s quake has changed the way officials along the East Coast view emergency preparedness.

Emergency response plans that once focused on hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding and snow are being revised to include quakes. Some states have enacted laws specifically related to the quake, and there is anecdotal evidence of a spike in insurance coverage for earthquake damage.

The quake was centered 3 to 4 miles beneath Mineral, a town of fewer than 500 people about 50 miles northwest of Richmond. Yet it was believed to have been felt by more people than any other in U.S. history.

The damage, estimated at more than $200 million, extended far beyond rural Louisa County. In the nation’s capital, the Washington Monument sustained several large cracks and remains closed indefinitely.

The National Park Service plans next month to finalize the contract to repair the Washington Monument. Repairs are expected to cost $15 million and require a massive scaffolding, and the landmark obelisk is likely to remain closed until 2014. The National Cathedral reopened last November, but repairs are expected to take years and cost $20 million.

In Virginia, the North Anna Power Station became the first operating U.S. nuclear power plant shut down because of an earthquake.

Was it a once-in-a-century anomaly, or are there more quakes to come?

Scientists are trying to answer that question as they pore over the data and survey the epicenter from the air.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, much of central Virginia has been labeled for decades as an area of elevated seismic hazard. But last year’s quake was the largest known to occur in that seismic zone.

“Scientists would like to know if this earthquake was Virginia’s ‘Big One,’” said J. Wright Horton of the USGS.

Meanwhile, the quake prompted several jurisdictions to revise their emergency response plans.

“We learned a lot, that’s for sure,” said Laura Southard, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. One lesson, she said: the need to conduct post-quake assessments to size up damage.

Ultimately, 6,400 homeowners and renters in nine Virginia localities received $16.5 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia are revising their emergency planning documents to include earthquakes. The response of many East Coast residents — many of whom fled high-rise buildings — went counter to the behavior recommended by experts during a quake.

“It’s fair to say that no one thought we’d have an earthquake,” said Christopher Geldart, director of the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency. The agency is hoping to educate the public about what to do next time. It is even encouraging participation in a regional earthquake drill this fall.

The agency has made changes in how it alerts local government employees and residents about disasters. It didn’t send out an alert about the earthquake until 30 minutes afterward — at which point many people had already decided to leave the capital and ended up in traffic jams for hours. Now, the goal is to send out a communication within 5 minutes. Those whose buildings aren’t compromised will also be advised to stay put.

In Maryland, the state’s first emergency quake exercise was conducted in April. The state was spared major damage a year ago. But Edward McDonough, a spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, said: “It definitely shook us up, pardon the pun.”

Insurance industry associations and regulators could not provide statistics on whether the earthquake inspired homeowners to add coverage for such an event, but a small percentage of property owners have it. State Farm spokeswoman Amy Preddy said less than 2 percent of its policyholders in Virginia have what is called an earthquake “endorsement,” though she said the company has seen a small increase in coverage requests in Louisa and Fluvanna counties.

The Virginia General Assembly has passed legislation since that requires insurers to inform new and renewing customers whether earthquake coverage is excluded in their policies and whether it is available.

Dominion Virginia Power spent about 110,000 hours and $21 million on inspections, testing and evaluation of the North Anna Power Station after the quake. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave Dominion permission to restart the twin 1,800-megawatt reactors on Nov. 11 after inspections showed they did not suffer any functional damage.

Since the quake, Dominion also has installed additional seismic monitoring equipment. Dan Stoddard, senior vice president of nuclear operations for Dominion, said the plant’s reactors have experienced no earthquake-related issues following the restart.

In New York, where skyscrapers shook and some feared another act of terrorism had befallen the city, the quake appears to have changed little. Emergency management officials said they were making minor changes to their internal planning, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has made no major policy changes.

The Indian Point nuclear plant, located about 35 miles from the city in Buchanan, N.Y., had already added safeguards to its facility after the meltdown triggered by an earthquake and tsunami at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan.

Sara Nichols, 45, said wobbly buildings and a few tremors weren’t enough to shake her.

“Unless it splits a building in half, I think New Yorkers are too hardcore to worry about taking safety precautions after something like that,” she said.

Nuckols reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Michael Felberbaum in Richmond, Va., and Alex Katz in New York contributed to this report.



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