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.
"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."
Though Phillip Young filed out of the mall as he saw others leaving, the 25-year-old Columbia resident said his reaction was the opposite of Allison's.
"It was kind of fun," Young said. "I wasn't scared at all. I was on the phone. I saw the railings and the ceiling shaking. If someone told me there was an earthquake coming, I'd be scared. For some reason I wasn't."
The earthquake was nothing new for Tom O'Donnell, who felt the tremors at the downtown Columbia post office in the American City Building. Having relocated to Columbia from San Francisco, he immediately recognized why items at the post office were moving back and forth.
"The postmaster said, 'What is this?' I said, 'Oh, it's an earthquake,' " the 65-year-old recalled. "I could feel within a couple of seconds that it wasn't going to get any worse. I've had some similar to this."
Earthquakes are rare in Howard County, according to Jennifer Stott, a geologist at Howard Community College. She explained that earthquakes always occur along a fault, which is a break in rock along which movement occurs. Most often, she added, earthquakes happen when two tectonic plates interact.
"We're located in the middle of the North American plate … and most earthquakes occur along plate boundaries," Stott said.
She added: "When we do have them, they're not going to be very strong."
At least one county business tried to make the most of the earthquake.
Nate Hynson, a floor manager at the Iron Bridge Wine Co. in Columbia, said the quake was all the employees were talking about when he arrived at work, and it even gave the restaurant a unique advertising opportunity.
Iron Bridge sent out an email late Tuesday afternoon advertising "Steaks and Quakes" night. In addition to its normal $20 Tuesday steak dinner special, the restaurant offered 5.9 percent off all wine-to-go purchases. (The earthquake was originally reported as 5.9 magnitude.)
Around 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Hynson said the restaurant was busier than usual, with people waiting for tables.
On Tuesday evening, county officials reiterated assurances that "no significant damage or injuries have been reported," but warned residents that aftershocks could occur. In fact, aftershocks did occur — as late as early Thursday morning — although not strong enough to be noticed by many in Howard County.
In a news release, the county suggested that residents inspect their homes for earthquake-related damage, such as unusual or new cracks in ceilings and walls, doors and windows that won't open or shut, and cracks or leaks in water, gas or sewer lines.