The words "earthquake," "magnitude" and "epicenter" might be common in California, but not in Howard County, where the occasional tremble rattles most residents and workers in more ways than one.

"I was terrified," Patrick Smith, a sales representative with Grimco Inc., a Jessup company that sells commercial signs, said Tuesday, Aug. 23, after feeling the effects of a 5.8-magnitude earthquake centered in Mineral, Va., about 125 miles south of Columbia, and felt up and down much of the East Coast.

Before Tuesday's tremble, the last reported earthquake to affect Howard County was a 3.6-magnitude quake, centered in Germantown, that rattled the region June 16 about 5 a.m.

From his office on Patuxent Range Road, Smith said he felt the Tuesday's earthquake shortly before 2 p.m. for about 15 seconds.

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"I think that's why it's so frightening because it didn't stop," he said. "Our whole ceiling and the walls and everything were just moving back and forth."

At her office on Columbia Gateway Drive, SAIC employee Pat Dumroese felt a similar jolt.

"It was as if the building shook … like somebody was actually pushing it back and forth," she said. "It felt like the cubicles were going, everything was going."

Despite the fright it stirred, the earthquake appeared not to cause any injuries or major damage in Howard.

About an hour after the quake hit, County Executive Ken Ulman and other county officials were at the emergency operations center monitoring the situation.

"We're tracking what's going on," Ulman said. "Apparently it doesn't look like there will be any major damage."

Howard County General Hospital reported no patients as a result of the earthquake, as of late Tuesday afternoon.

County government and school buildings were evacuated after the quake so they could be inspected for safety.

Teachers and non-essential public school employees preparing for the start of school on Monday, Aug. 29, were asked to go home so the buildings could be inspected, school system spokeswoman Linda Long said. Tuesday afternoon activities, including outdoor sports, were canceled. The only reported finding of the inspection was unspecified structural damage to the Applied Research Lab on Route 108.

Government employees were given liberal leave to go home Tuesday afternoon, but many returned to work after a brief evacuation. Minor damage, including broken light bulbs and leaking sprinklers, was found at county buildings, Ulman said.

The Howard County Fire Department had reported a possible gas leak at the Columbia mall, which was temporarily evacuated, but it turned out to be a leaking sprinkler pipe.

'It got really bad'

Minor or not, the quake was enough to stun many Howard residents.

About an hour after it hit, many were still standing outside of the mall, recovering from the shock.

Cynthia Allison said she had been on the first level of the mall when the shaking started.

"All of a sudden it got really bad, and I ran out the closest door. I got out of there," said Allison, 64, of Columbia. "I'm still feeling not too good inside. I'm still kind of nervous. I've never experienced an earthquake."