- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 22, 2012

MINERAL, Va. — For every resident, there’s been an aftershock.

A year after a 5.8-magnitude earthquake shook the ground from North Carolina to New Jersey, this town of 471 at its epicenter continues to tremble.

Now the unofficial earthquake capital of the East Coast, in most other ways Mineral is a typical small town. It’s the type of place where American flags hang in empty storefronts. A dot on a map near Charlottesville, it’s a place where the town clerk doubles as a Department of Motor Vehicles agent on busy days and the high school football team is accompanied on the field on game nights by a lion named Bubba secured from a nearby menagerie.

Things changed for the town at 1:51 p.m. on Aug. 23, 2011, when an unlikely earthquake centered just a few miles away jolted the mid-Atlantic region, causing millions of dollars in damage to monuments and historical landmarks 100 miles away in the District.

That night, as Mineral residents and emergency officials surveyed the destruction, a 4.5-magnitude aftershock hit the area. It was among the first of more than 450 aftershocks through May — an average of just more than one every 15 hours. More have been felt since then, but official data from the U.S. Geological Survey runs only through late spring.

Robert A. Williams, a geophysicist for the survey, said about 300 aftershocks have been strong enough to be felt — especially at night.

Some nights, Mineral resident Deborah D. Pettit wakes up and hears the noise.

“You get to sleep and then around 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. you hear it, the sound of it, the rumble,” she said. “You just hang on to the bed.”

Despite the historic quake, no deaths and only minor injuries were reported, a “miracle” not lost on the school community, said Ms. Pettit, the superintendent of the school district, which lost an elementary school and a high school to quake damage. On the one-year anniversary Thursday, officials are going to focus on reflection and gratitude — and hold an earthquake drill.

“Drop, cover, get under something,” Ms. Pettit said with a smile of familiarity.

“It is business as usual,” she said. “It’s our new normal and we take everything in stride.”

Learn to live with them

With aftershocks a regular occurrence in Mineral, the only thing to do, locals say, is learn to live with them.

“We’re the new California,” said Nikki Lanning, an employee at the local Dollar General. Some mornings, the 29-year-old walks into the store to find a few things scattered on the floor from overnight aftershocks.

“There’s nothing you can do about it but just clean it up,” she said.

She recently moved to the neighboring town of Orange, about 20 miles away, with her two young daughters to get farther from the aftershocks.

“Most of them are usually late at night, around 2 or 3,” Ms. Lanning said of the aftershocks. “The last time I felt one, I was concerned with getting my kids and getting out of the house.”

David Whitlock, owner of Mineral Auto Parts, said it’s normally only a few items that move overnight, but the tremors can be “kind of unnerving, especially the ones that are 2.0 or more.”

“They shake you pretty good,” he said. “You’re a whole lot more aware of the noise.”

Glenn Courson said he wakes at night to something he describes as sounding like a “train outside your window.”

Mr. Courson works for Bumpass, Va.-based RTW Construction Corp., and since the earthquake he has been busy repairing historical buildings, including the stately Cuckoo house, a two-story brick mansion built around 1819 and home to seven generations of the same family. Last August, its four chimneys crumbled when the quake hit.

“We’ve reused a lot of the same bricks, about 24,000,” he said. “Most homes lost their chimneys because most of them were brick. The way the Cuckoo house was constructed, it was brick and plaster right on each other. You could see cracking — some so big you could see outside the home.”

Among the other buildings damaged was the town hall, which had its roof collapse.

Mayor Pam Harlowe said Mineral’s ability to move forward after the quake was evidence of the town’s resiliency.

“That hardship created a lot of friendships people didn’t know they had,” she said, going on to acknowledge that the situation is not over.

“You don’t cringe as much, but aftershocks still happen,” she said, “and we have to stop and think, ‘Is that a train or is this another earthquake?’”

Slowing down

If it seemed to residents as if there was an aftershock every day, that’s because there was.

“I heard stories from people out there, in the beginning, on the first day it felt like it was really shaking all the time,” said Mr. Williams, the geophysicist. “It’s really slowed down in the last couple of months.”

More than 400 aftershocks in eight months might seem excessive for Mineral locals, but, Mr. Williams said, it is not. In time, geophysicists might confirm that twice as many aftershocks — most too small for people to notice — occurred.

“It seemed like people were feeling the aftershocks down to about 1.7 or 1.8 magnitudes,” Mr. Williams said. “If they’re laying there in bed in the evening, they’re going to feel a much smaller quake than if they’re walking around.”

In fact, Mineral residents might feel aftershocks in the area for another year or so, he said. Because large earthquakes are not frequent in Virginia, “We don’t have a good predictor of aftershock behavior.”

A lack of data on historical quakes also proves problematic for future earthquake prediction, Mr. Williams said.

“Is this the biggest quake that region can produce?” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to figure out. It’s not going to be easy to solve that question.”

But it’s an answer many Mineral residents would like to have.

Asked if she thought last year’s was the last of the large quakes in her hometown, Ms. Lanning nodded her head.

“I think it was. I hope it was,” she said. “But some people still say a big one is coming.”

• Meredith Somers can be reached at msomers@washingtontimes.com.

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