Charlottesville rocks: 4.5 strikes us

Lindsay Nolting found herself at the epicenter of this week's earthquake. "It felt violent," says Nolting, who lives near the tiny James River burg of Columbia. "The cat's tail got as big as a fox's tail. The phone jumped out of its cradle, and plaster fell from the ceiling."

When the quake struck around 4pm, Nolting, an artist, had been cleaning her home, called "Gum Creek," for the imminent arrival of houseguests. "Now," says Nolting, "I'll have to get them to help me clean up the plaster."

Central Virginians were jolted Tuesday, December 9, by an earthquake that rattled windows and sent office workers (including pretty much everyone in The Hook building) out into the streets. According to the government's top earthquake site, the epicenter was about 15 miles southeast of Columbia (and about three miles underground).

Richmond resident Frank Engler thought something had malfunctioned inside the historic Dietz Press building where he works as the production designer for Virginia Living magazine. But he was in no position to duck and cover. "I was actually standing up going to the bathroom as it happened," says Engler. "I was hoping it would stop, but it didn't, so I rode it out."

In Charlottesville, once it became clear it wasn't a big truck rumbling by, Downtown Mall workers began heading to the streets. Charlottesville's second earthquake of the year, at 3:59pm, registered 4.5 on the Richter Scale, and most office workers reached by The Hook estimated the duration of the seismic event as 20 to 30 seconds of rattling windows and shaking floors.

Martin Chapman, director of the Virginia Tech Seismological Center, puts the center as southern Goochland and Powhatan, between Route 544 and Route 60.

He calls it a moderate earthquake. "You probably got the 30- to 40-year one," he says.

The biggest shaker recorded in this area was a 5.5 in 1897. That was a 500-year quake, says Chapman.

So is this area primed for the Big One? Chapman concedes that it's possible but the chance is unlikely.

He says Charlottesville and Richmond are on either side of an area in Central Virginia that historically has experienced quakes. The last one registering 4.5 took place in 1984.

Over at Blacksburg, the seismological center nearly missed the shaking. "We just got our equipment up and running before it happened," says Chapman. "We didn't feel it, but we knew it was happening."

At 4:47pm, no major damage had been reported in Charlottesville, according to city communications director Maurice Jones.

"Here at City Hall, we certainly felt the rumble," he says. "We didn't have anything fall off the walls."

Jones was sitting at his desk when the rumbling began. He got up, walked down the hall, then came back to his desk and started making phone calls to the emergency director, fire department, and police.

Jones describes the reaction at City Hall as more curiosity than anything, "once we realized it wasn't a truck going by."

–with additional reporting by Hawes Spencer and Rosalind Warfield-Brown


 Previous quakes

 * May 5, 2003 - Centered near Columbia on the James River, this one rattles windows in Charlottesville but results in no damage to speak of. Richter scale measure: 3.9

* September 22, 2001 - A post 9/11 sound not unlike a sonic boom scares Shadwell, just east of Charlottesville, and is heard throughout Central Virginia. Richter scale measure: 3.2

* May 31, 1897 - Blacksburg, before it became home to Virginia's top seismic research center, is epicenter for a biggie felt as far away as Georgia and Pennsylvania. Richter scale measure: 5.8

* February 21, 1774 - A series of tremors rocks Central Virginia. Amid the confusion up at Monticello Mountain, Thomas Jefferson's mentally retarded sister, Elizabeth, wanders away from the mansion. Her body was found a few days later. Richter scale measure: 6.0

–Richter scale estimates from Seismicity of the United States, 1568-1989 (Revised) by Carl W. Stover and Jerry L. Coffman