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Authorities Educating Marylanders On Safety After August 2011 Earthquake

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Alex DeMetrick has been a general assignment reporter with WJZ...
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MINERAL, Va./BALTIMORE (AP/WJZ) — Odds are, you remember where you were exactly one year ago today. Aug. 23, 2011 is when Maryland was rocked by the largest earthquake in living memory.

Alex DeMetrick reports the last 12 months have seen a lot of repairs and science.

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.

Cameras caught the shaking outside last year. But it was inside that the 5.8 magnitude quake was really felt. Inside the Washington Monument, people were dodging debris as they scrambled for the stairs.

“This is the most significant earthquake to ever strike the United States east of the Rocky Mountains,” Dr. Marcia McNutt of the U.S. Geological Survey said.

Standing under a monument still closed and awaiting repairs, scientists and emergency planners reviewed lessons learned from the quake, like where it was felt.

Given the East Coast’s geological make-up, it rumbled from Florida to Canada.

“More people felt this earthquake than any other earthquake in U.S. history,” McNutt said.

That certainly included all of Maryland where it hit hard enough to cause some structural damage.

Repairs to the church in Fells Point and the Basilica of the Assumption will cost millions.

And in Baltimore, memories are still fresh.

“Everything was shaking. We didn’t know what was going on and things were falling,” one witness said.

“It was crazy. The building was shaking. And we all just kind of stopped and said, ‘Did you feel that?’” said another.

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.

If there is a central message in this review, it’s that people on the East Coast don’t know what to do when a quake hits.

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.

“When you feel the ground start to shake, drop, take cover and hold. Drop, take cover and hold,” Tim Manning, deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said. “The last thing you should do is evacuate a building. More people are injured by falling debris and glass than anything else.”

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.”

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. The cathedral announced Thursday that it has received a $5 million grant from the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment Inc. With that funding in place, stonemasons were scheduled to begin active restoration Thursday afternoon. Previously, they had been stabilizing the damaged components and cataloging the damage.

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? While it’s impossible to know when another quake will hit, experts now know about the earthquake fault in Virginia and its potential.

“It has the potential for major damage,” McNutt said. “So we are a lot further along in understanding seismic hazard here in the East.”

Damage from last year’s quake has been set at least $200 million.

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.

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.

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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