Lawyers and other legal eagles take refuge in front of the Albemarle courthouse after the earth shook.
The quake may have come from the Chopawamic faults in the Central Virginia Seismic Zone.
Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy
Unless you were in the presence of a perceptive animal– and there were scattered reports of skittish dogs– it came without warning four seconds after 1:51pm on a sunny Tuesday, August 23. At 5.8 on the Richter scale, it was the biggest earthquake to hit Central Virginia during human habitation, the biggest in Virginia in the era of measured earthquakes, and, according to the state geologist, taking note of reports stretching from Canada to South Carolina, "the most-felt earthquake in human history."
Like Hurricane Camille, which struck Central Virginia in 1969, it would be several days before the extent of the damage became known. Most severely hit were schools and houses in Louisa County, a place that's home to about 33,000 people– and one very strong earthquake.
Shawn Lawson's husband was in the shower of their rented home when the pink ceramic tiles suddenly began popping off the wall. Outside, the porch roof collapsed. And inside, Lawson huddled over a nephew and grandson as the walls cracked and the chimney tumbled onto a picnic table in the yard.
"I don't know that it's liveable," said Lawson of the house, pointing to myriad cracks a few hours after the big shake.
Scenes of lost chimneys, cracked walls, and shifted foundations were repeated across Louisa. Within days, officials had tallied the property damage at nearly $7 million. And that doesn't count the schools, two of which have been ruled out of service for the duration of the academic year.
At an emotional press conference– interrupted several times by the applause of teachers wearing "One team. One dream" t-shirts made for the occasion– Louisa school officials revealed the plan to educate the students from the two closed schools.
The 550 students of Thomas Jefferson Elementary will move into Trevilians Elementary with 25 trailers added to the property. Educating the 900 Louisa High School students will require greater maneuvering. Until dozens of trailers arrive in January, the high schoolers will have the run of Louisa Middle School on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. The middle schoolers– at least until the trailers arrive– will find themselves educated on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. And the school day will be lengthened to an 8am-to-5pm schedule.
Louisa County Public Schools superintendent Deborah Pettit said that about a dozen students at the schools were treated for minor injuries when debris rained down on them, one asthmatic student was transported to the University of Virginia Medical Center, and one teacher suffered a mild concussion when smacked on the head by a falling bookcase.
The injured teacher was reportedly back in action two days later helping distribute bookbags and– more importantly– mobile phones left behind when students evacuated. "I will tell you," says Pettit, "that high schoolers have suffered without their cell phones."
Like a modern day Matt Hooper (the scientist who arrives to help shark-torn Amity Island grapple with the beast in the 1975 movie Jaws), University of Tennessee-based structural engineer James E. Beavers showed up in Louisa to examine the damage. A part of the nonprofit Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, Beavers and the rest of his five-member entourage were hoping to peer inside the damaged schools. But administrators kept them out.
"They're just scared to death," says Beavers. "That's why we didn't get in. Once the insurance companies take over, that means lawyers take over."
Beavers was, however, able to tour other parts of Louisa including hard-hit Roundabout Road, where Patrick Henry once lived and which is now the site of heavy residential damage, including one structure whose chimney crumbled both inside and outside the house.
Does Beavers have any advice? Yes: order earthquake insurance, as it may cost a lot less than earthquake-proofing an older house.
What's in a name?
The most devastating seismic event in recent American history– the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake– got its name from the mountain near the epicenter. If picking a nearby locale is the naming standard, then this one might be called the Cuckoo quake, as the epicenter was just 1.75 miles from the historic village that changed the American Revolution.
Cuckoo was the spot where a patriotic 26-year-old named Jack Jouett sprang into action with a daring midnight ride to bypass a British battle force and warn Thomas Jefferson and other Charlottesvillians of the advancing red coats. While the 1818 mansion standing on the site of Cuckoo Tavern received some of the most obvious damage– losing all four chimney-tops and suffering gaping holes in its brick gables– engineer Beavers says the damage appears "architectural" and not "structural." So that's good news.
The bad news, at least for already-weakened buildings (and for the skittish among us), is that aftershocks continue. At presstime, the United States Geological Survey listed 21 earthquakes starting with the big opener and ending with a 2.1 at 9:27am on Tuesday, August 30. Between those points was a 4.2 shortly after 8pm on earthquake day and a 1:07am bed-shaking 4.5 nearly two days later. The government list doesn't include quakes measuring less than 2.0 on the Richter scale.
State geologist David Spears says that Central Virginians might want to get used to aftershocks. He says he knows of "at least 30," and there could be many more.
While the magnitude of the biggie was a surprise, the location was not, as Louisa lies within an area geologists call the Central Virginia Seismic Zone, a sort of Bermuda Triangle for the area that, Spears says, has experienced over 150 quakes since 1900.
Out in Golden, Colorado, geophysicist Paul Caruso of the USGS says that despite the surprise, he sees no reason to worry that we've experienced the harbinger of something worse.
"The magnitude of an earthquake," says Caruso, "is directly related to the size of the fault." And Caruso says the fault along which the Cuckoo quake likely occurred is probably no longer than 15 kilometers. By comparison, California's notorious San Andreas fault is about 1,500 kilometers.
Another reassurance Caruso offers is a rejection of the idea of a human cause. One Charlottesville activist has suggested that hydrofracking– the controversial practice of harvesting fossil fuels by injecting water deep underground– might have started the Cuckoo quake. Caruso says the only known instance of a fracking-induced earthquake was a highly localized 1960s event in Colorado. The closest fracking to Louisa is in West Virginia.
"To say that fracking caused an earthquake hundreds of miles away is a real stretch," says Caruso.
Still, the mysteries of the Cuckoo quake have many people wondering– and worried– whether officials really know what they're talking about. For instance, the whole concept of foreshocks took on deadly significance earlier this year with the massive 9.0 Japanese earthquake and ensuing deadly tsunami, as those events followed a 7.2 tremor by two days.
"I understand that people are concerned," says Caruso, "but it's extremely unlikely. I'd bet my paycheck that we won't have a larger earthquake than the one we just experienced."
Correction: After this issue went to press but before this electronic copy went online, we noticed that the last name of the school superintendent was misspelled. It is correctly spelled in this online edition. ("superintendent" took two tries)