5.8 earthquake felt in Bel Air, throughout region

The 5.8-magnitude earthquake in Virginia that was felt in Harford County and the region Tuesday afternoon didn't cause any significant damage in the area. But it touched off a whirlwind of activity and excitement.

A strong tremor, lasting around 10 seconds, was felt in downtown Bel Air shortly before 2 p.m., shaking buildings but not causing any identifiable damage.

Harford County Executive David Craig said at about 2:20 p.m. he had not heard of any damage or injuries, but put the county on a liberal leave policy at 3 p.m.

"Some people are a little flustered," he noted. "We evacuated all of our public buildings, went back in with our inspection crew."

Craig also warned people not to call the Emergency Operations Center or 911 unless there is an actual emergency.

"We are encouraging people not to call just to ask for information," he said. "We will probably do a [Connect-CTY message] soon concerning what we know."

The Emergency Operations Center started its emergency operation, as it would do during any serious storm, Craig said.

The following message was issued by the EOC: "This Is Harford County Emergency Manager Rick Ayers with an emergency message. A earthquake has been felt in Harford County. We are currently activating our EOC (Emergency Operations Center) and assessing damage in the County. Please do not call 911 unless you are reporting damage and/or need emergency assistance."

The EOC was still active at 5 p.m., but emergency officials said they were scaling back and only the staff usually at the 911 Center would monitor possible earthquake effects or activity.

Communication seemed disrupted in the immediate aftermath of the quake. Cell phones were jammed and some websites, including those for the U.S. Geological Survey, appeared overloaded.

Reached for comment just after 2 p.m., a representative at the USGS, which is based in Reston, Va., said, "We are being evacuated."

Representatives at the Bel Air Police Department said at about 2 p.m. they were unable to reach emergency communications.

Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station spokesman David Tillman said the nuclear power plant in Delta, Pa., near the Harford border, was operating normally and did not evacuate.

"We have declared 'an unusual event,' the lowest of the four emergency classifications," Tillman said at 3:15 p.m. "We will continue to closely monitor our equipment … We are operating at full power safely."

Dam, bridges, buildings

Bob Judge, a spokesman for Exelon Power, owner of Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River between Harford and Cecil counties, said there was no damage to the structure and that operators had conducted a full examination of the dam and adjacent power generating plant and had found everything was working properly.

The 83-year-old Conowingo Dam is the state's largest river dam and one of the largest dams in the Eastern United States.

Harford's two major Susquehanna River bridges, The Route 40 Thomas Hatem Memorial Bridge and the I-95 Millard Tydings Bridge appeared undamaged, Teri Moss, spokesperson for the Maryland Transportation Authority, said.

Neither bridge was closed, but crews were out to inspect for any possible problems.

"We will continue to inspect," Moss said.

The quake was felt in the Edgewood area, where Aegis news staff members were conducting an interview at the middle school.

"The entire gym at Edgewood Middle just shook for like 10 seconds," Aegis photographer Nicole Munchel wrote in a text message.

The earthquake interrupted bail review hearings taking place at the Mary Risteau District Court building in Bel Air and became the talk of the building.

As the building shook, a corrections officer at the Harford County Detention Center in contact with the court through closed circuit television system said the jail was also shaking. Once the tremors subsided, hearings continued as usual.

There was an emergency call in Havre de Grace for a possible gas leak.

Harford County Public Schools Manager of Communications Teri Kranefeld confirmed in an e-mail Tuesday afternoon that a relief valve at Havre de Grace High School was released during the earthquake, causing a gas leak at the school.

"Everything has now been secured," she added.

Cecil County Public Schools posted a message on its website Tuesday evening saying the superintendent had decided to postpone Wednesday's scheduled first day of school until Thursday, "in order to allow further time to inspect our school facilities." School offices were also closed Wednesday.

By 2:40 p.m. Tuesday, people were walking around on Main Street in Bel Air as if nothing had happened.

The tremor was felt from Virginia, across Maryland and as far north as New England, according to initial news reports.

Former Aegis news staff member Rachel Konopacki, on a business trip in Dover, Pa., about 75 miles northwest of Bel Air, said not everyone, including her, was immediately aware of the quake.

"One person in five felt the floor shake a little," Konopacki wrote in a text message. "The rest of us didn't feel a thing."

According to the NGS, the quake was centered near Louisa, Va., in the 23093 ZIP Code, map coordinates 37.9750, -77.9690. The area is in the center of the state, northwest of Richmond and east of Charlottesville.

Some cellular phone service appeared to have been disrupted in the Bel Air area for an hour or more after the quake was felt.

E-mail messages flooding in from http://www.baltimoresun.com and http://www.exploreharford.com said the quake was felt around the Baltimore region, including Columbia, Ellicott City, Catonsville, Towson and Timonium.

"All Maryland State Police barracks throughout the state reported feeling the quake, but as of 2:30 p.m., they have received no reports of serious injuries," stated a news release from state police headquarters in Pikesville.

The same was true of MSP Bel Air Barrack. As of 3:20 p.m. Tuesday, Maryland State Police with the Bel Air Barrack had no reports of damage or injury related to the quake.

Rich Gardiner, spokesman for the Harford Volunteer Fire and EMS Association said everything was quiet and knew of no incidents taking place.

Spokespersons at Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace and the Aberdeen Police Department, likewise, said everything appeared fine.

Craig warns of aftershocks

Harford county executive Craig issued a written statement shortly after 6 p.m. Tuesday, warning of the effects from possible aftershocks.

"There is a one in ten chance that an aftershock similar in strength could occur by 2 p.m. tomorrow [Wednesday]," the statement read. "Citizens are asked to report significant damage resulting from the earthquake to the 911 Center.

"Significant damage is defined as needing immediate attention to protect life and safety," the statement continued. "Individuals should look for anomalies such as cracked foundations or broken glass resulting from this event."

"Harford County is in the process of inspecting County owned facilities and bridges," the statement concluded. "Our Emergency Operations Center will continue to monitor the situation throughout the night and into tomorrow."

Previous Harford shakes, quakes

Tuesday was not the first time the ground rumbled beneath the feet of Harford County residents because of seismic activity.

In September 2009, the Harford County Emergency Operations Center received several phone calls from Forest Hill, Hickory and northern Bel Air reporting a rumble or large bump.

While the sensation was not confirmed to be an earthquake, the Maryland Geological Survey website did show a spike in local activity on the seismography that morning.

In December 2008, an earthquake with a Richter magnitude of 3.4 occurred in southeastern Pennsylvania close enough for the quake to be felt in northern Harford County.

A U.S. Geological Survey spokesman said at the time the quake was minor and lasted only a few seconds. No damage was reported, but several people said their homes shook briefly.

Mild earth tremors were reported in Harford one early morning in 1973, according to Aegis archive records. Most people likely slept through the tremors, according to one article in the newspaper.

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