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Earthquake shakes up Laurel

Bernard Worrell, PNC Bank vice president, left his Main Street office shortly before 2 p.m. on Tuesday to grab a bite to eat at a Route 1 restaurant. Worrell said he was sitting at a table in the restaurant when all of a sudden, the whole place started to shake.

"The chairs were moving, the table felt like someone was underneath it moving it and even though I was feeling good, my initial reaction was that I thought I was having a stroke or something," Worrell said. "I knew that wasn't the case pretty quickly as I saw things falling off the counter and the walls shaking. It was crazy."

Worrell soon realized he was in the middle of an earthquake that seismologists said had a 5.8 magnitude and was centered near Mineral, Va., nearly 90 miles from the nation's capital. The quake was felt as far away as New York andSouth Carolina.

During earthquakes, people are advised to go outside if they are not near overhanging structures, which is exactly what Worrell said he did soon after he realized what was happening.

"A lot of people were outside with confused and bewildered looks on their faces," Worrell said. "We were all pretty stunned as we talked to each other. No one's telephone was working but we could get text messages and I started receiving messages from friends asking if I was OK, and they gave me updates on what was going on," Worrell said.

According to city officials, no damages have resulted from the earthquake that hit the area at 1:51 p.m. Aug. 23. City Deputy Administrator Martin Flemion said an assessment of city buildings, businesses and residences has not turned up any damages.

Police Chief Richard McLaughin said the city lost all cell and land line telephone service for 15 to 20 minutes after the earthquake was over, and that police and emergency officials used radios to communicate.

"It was just like after 9/11," he said. McLaughlin also said there was no need to call in off-duty officers after the earthquake.

When the tremors started, McLaughlin was walking down the street.

"The ground started to shake and I could feel the vibrations," he said. "It felt like a big truck was coming up the street or a plane as it got louder. I realized it was an earthquake and started to check on people."

City spokesperson Carreen Koubek gave a similar description of the earthquake and said she was in the city's cable television offices as the noise from the earthquake got increasingly louder.

"I looked down the hall and saw the walls moving," Koubek said. "Everyone came out of their offices and many thought we were having problems on the building's roof before we realized it was an earthquake. It was over quickly but I've lived here for 30 years and have never felt anything like this before."

With a fault line in nearby Columbia, there have been earthquakes in the area in the past, but not as strong as this week's quake. U.S. Geological Survey officials had predicted that there was a .2 percent to .5 percent chance of a 5.0-5.5 earthquake hitting Laurel within 50 years. The largest earthquakes recorded in the area by the agency was a 4.6-magnitude earthquake in 1994 and a 4.5-magnitude earthquake in 2003.

Most people interviewed said the strong tremors lasted 30 seconds or more, and earthquake specialists said the vibrations were so strong because the earthquake occurred just beneath the earth's surface.

Flemion, who is the city's point person on emergency preparedness, said he was in a conference room for a meeting at city hall when he felt the first shocks of the earthquake.

"A couple of people had bottles of water on the table at the meeting and they started to dance across the table," Flemion said. "I've been in earthquakes in California and it only took me a second to realize it was an earthquake."

But because earthquakes are rare in the area, many people have never experienced one and even when it was over, did not realize one had hit the city.

Anna Rose Bland, who lives on Cherry Lane near Route 1, said she didn't know what she felt was an earthquake until after it was over. She said she was sitting on her sofa in her back sunroom, engrossed in her Bible study, when she felt the first rumbles of the earthquake.

"I didn't hear much because my entire house was closed up, but my sofa started to shake and I went into my dining room and the dishes in my china closet were rattling," said Bland. "I looked out the door and didn't see anything unusual, so I didn't know what had happened. I didn't have my television on but my neighbor, who knew I didn't watch television when I'm doing my Bible study, ran to tell me it was an earthquake."

And even though Worrell had experienced an earthquake before, he and most others in the area were completely caught off guard when their buildings, homes, sidewalks and even their vehicles started to shake, in most cases, violently.

"If I was in California, I may have been expecting the shaking to be an earthquake, but not in the middle of the day, with the sun shining, and not in Laurel," Worrell said.

Be prepared

But even though major earthquakes are a rarity in Laurel, Flemion advises residents to be prepared and know what to do if one occurs.

"If you're outside, stay outside, but even though most suggest you go outside from a building or home, that may not be safe in Baltimore or D.C. because of structural elements that could fall on someone," Flemion said. "People should avoid overhead objects and if inside, get under a heavy table or desk or lay down near an outside wall, which would be better protection because most ceilings cave in, in the center of a room."

There were tweets written about standing in a doorway during an earthquake, but Flemion said that's only good advice, "if the doorway has a wall that goes from the bottom elevation of a home to the top, a load-bearing wall, to provide support to the ceiling."

Those indoors when an earthquake hits should drop to the floor, cover their face, stay away from glass and not move around or use elevators. Those caught sleeping during an earthquake are advised to cover their faces and remain in bed. Those in vehicles should stop away from buildings or electric wiring, and anyone trapped under debris is advised to cover their mouths, not move or light a match and tap on a wall or pipe so rescuers can find them.

Flemion added, "If you've never been in an earthquake, I hope this one will start you thinking about how to prepare and react to one. That's what we want people to do."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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