Baltimore County Hit by 5.8 Magnitude Earthquake

… Pikesville, Kenwood high schools found to have wall cracks after quake …

By Kevin Rector,

6:14 PM EDT, August 23, 2011

A 5.8 magnitude earthquake emanating out of Virginia hit Baltimore County and much of the East Coast shortly before 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 23, shaking large buildings and causing Baltimore County government buildings to be evacuated.

No significant damage has been reported in the county, but fire officials are responding to people stuck in elevators around the county, said Don Mohler, a county spokesman.

For that reason, people in the county are urged to use stairs instead of elevators, in case of aftershocks, Mohler said.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, which at one point raised the level of the earthquake to a 5.9 magnitude before lowering it back to 5.8, the earthquake hit near the town of Mineral, Va.

Reports of associated trembles have since come from as far south as South Carolina and as far north as Boston.

Mohler, who is chief of staff to County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, said he was on the phone with Chris McCollum, executive director of the Baltimore County Center for Maryland Agriculture in Hunt Valley, when McCollum noticed shaking there.

“He said, ‘Don, I gotta go,’ and as soon as he said that, I said, ‘I know why. We’re having an earthquake,’ so it was pretty widespread,” Mohler said.

“It wasn’t very long, but it clearly shook some buildings, shook some windows,” he said. “People knew what was happening, so at that point we evacuated.”

Kamenetz is on vacation with his family in Ocean City, but was immediately in touch with senior members of his administration following news of the earthquake, Mohler said.

Many buildings, including The Baltimore Sun building in downtown Baltimore, were evacuated. Mohler said county buildings were evacuated shortly before 2 p.m. so fire and public works teams could assess possible gas leaks or structural damage — neither of which were found.

County government employees were allowed back inside at about 2:40 p.m. Supervisors were told by senior adminstrators to allow liberal leave to non-essential county employees who were “nervous or worried about themselves or family members,” Mohler said.

Also at 2:40 p.m., Elise Armacost, spokeswoman for Baltimore County police, fire, and emergency management, tweeted from @BACOEmergency the official Baltimore County Emergency Management Twitter account, that there had been no reports of significant damage at that time.

Armacost also said that the county’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management has activated its Emergency Operations Center, and emergency management officials are “monitoring the situation.”

Armacost said there were no reports of serious damage to any buildings, gas or water lines.

There was a report of a fallen chimney in Catonsville, but this was not confirmed.

At the Target Store in White Marsh, manager O.J. Keller said a few ceiling tiles fell, but otherwise there was no damage and no one was hurt. He said “we were able to continue operating,” and the store was not evacuated.

County inspectors checked out local hospitals and county buildings and found no problems, Armacost said. She said there were 60 scattered power outages reported by BGE, but it was not clear if these were related to the quake.

County buildings were evacuated after the earthquake, Armacost said. She said non-essential county employees — everyone other than police, fire and public works employees — were told they could take the day as “liberal leave,” meaning they could take a vacation day and have the day off.

The Circuit Court was evacuated after the quake, and public business ceased after that. Armacost was not sure if employees returned to the building. No one was answering the phone at the courthouse in the afternoon.

Clem Kaikis, owner of Paul’s restaurant in Arbutus, said he was outside the restaurant supervising a repainting job on the rails outside the place when the quake hit. He noticed the front windows seemed to be buckling.

Kaikis said the restaurant was about half full with some 45 customers when the shaking started.

“They took it in stride,” said Kaikis. “Nobody evacuated.”

He said it seemed most of the patrons “were excited” but not frightened.

“It was an experience, no question. Before you knew it, it was over.”

When the ground shook, library director Gail Ross and most of the rest of the crew at the Arbutus Branch Library thought one of the construction vehicles outside had bumped into the building.

But staff member Tina Pickens, who once lived in California, knew immediately what was happening and urged people to seek shelter in a doorway.

The library had no damage and only about a half dozen books to pick up, Ross said.

To be safe, Ross said the library evacuated everyone from the building at 855 Sulphur Spring Road until the maintenance supervisor gave the all clear about two hours later.

“It was smooth here,” Ross said about the earthquake proceedings. “We walked around and saw cracks, but they’re probably just settlement cracks that were there before.”

Phone lines in the area became jammed shortly after the trembles occurred, as residents tried to reach loved ones and find more information – one of the main causes of concern for people, Mohler said.

The county is also working with BGE to identify any gas leaks in the county, Mohler said.

Charles Herndon, spokesman for Baltimore County Public Schools, said the system is “still a go” with regular operations, and had no evacuations during the earthquake.

“There were some people who voluntarily left the buildings and went out when it happened, but I think that’s a normal human reaction,” Herndon said.

Herndon said school officials have also found cracks in the gymnasium of Kenwood High School inEssex and along the back wall of Pikesville High School that are thought to have been caused by the earthquake.

“We’re still looking into it,” Herndon said. “I don’t think they were large cracks or gaping holes or anything along those lines.”

School officials throughout the system are “going through the buildings this afternoon, looking for evidence of damage or anything along those lines,” he said.

Schools officials were also being encouraged to review the system’s protocols for seismic events, which call for those inside school buildings to remain inside, and for those outside to move away from school buildings, Herndon said.

Immediately after the earthquake, Herndon said calls began pouring into the central office from schools, including from the George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Towson, where administrators thought the trembles were from construction on the campus.

“It was definitely an unnerving thing for a few moments,” Herndon said. “I think it takes a few moments to process what it is. Is this a big truck rolling by? Is it the boiler a floor below me? A military jet overhead?”

“But we very quickly realized,” he said.

Tom Quirk, Baltimore County councilman of District 1, said he had stopped at his home on Edmondson Avenue in Catonsville and was checking his computer in the dining room on the first floor when the house shook.

“I thought it was maybe a big tractor trailer,” said Quirk. But when it went on, he knew it had to be an earthquake, although he said he’d never felt one before.

“My first thought was, ‘Am I insured,’ ” said Quirk, who works as a financial consultant in Catonsville.

He said his assistant at his consulting office on Frederick Road told him a bookshelf in the office was swaying back and forth, looking like it might topple over. It didn’t.

Along Frederick Road, Catonsville’s main street, people were spilling out onto the sidewalk, trying to figure out what had happened, said Quirk’s legislative assistant, Pete Kriscumas, who was in a car parked behind the council district office when the shaking started.

“It was really rocking,” he said. It seemed someone was rocking the back of the car, he said.

Kriscumas said the councilman’s office got a call about 4 p.m. from the Baltimore County Library saying they were closing the Lansdowne Branch at 500 Third Ave. because of a “pretty large crack in the side of the building.”

Library officials said the Lansdowne branch will remain closed until its structural stability can be assured.

One of the smallest buildings in Arbutus remains perfectly stable.

Cymea Saradpon was making a custard and strawberry snowball at the Eskimo Shack on Oregon Avenue when the earthquake hit, she said.

“I felt the floor rocking kind of like when you’re on a boat and its anchored,” Saradpon recalled only hours after the earthquake. “I thought at first it was the ice cream machine.”

Despite the shaking, Saradpon said the building didn’t sustain any damage.

Not even the stacks of Styrofoam cups sitting on a shelf above her head fell, she noted.

Even without much damage happening in Arbutus, Saradpon said the earthquake is a hot topic.

“Almost everybody who comes up today asks about it,” Saradpon said with a laugh.

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz was in Ocean City last weekend for a convention and stayed a few extra days with his family, and said they didn’t feel a thing by the shore.

But immediately after the earthquake struck, Kamenetz received a call from his office.

“I spoke to the police and fire chiefs immediately,” Kamenetz said over the phone from Ocean City.

Had he been around, Kamenetz said, the process in the Emergency Operations Center, which is coordinated by Baltimore County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, would have been the same as it was today.

“We leave it up to the police and fire chief to implement the protocols that are already in place, so it doesn’t require me to oversee,” Kamenetz said. “The key is that I’m in regular contact.

“Our public safety personnel are well-trained to handle any emergency, though I don’t recall any instance where we had an earthquake. But the protocol is still the same, and I’m glad everything we had in place operated effectively.”

The Office of Emergency Control, located in the basement of the county government building, serves as the nerve center in the event of emergencies or natural disasters such as this.

Mark Hubbard, director of the office of homeland security and emergency

management, described the Office of Emergency Control as a place for operating agencies to coordinate its efforts.

“In the field, they’re only focused on what’s in front of them,” Division Chief Steve Miller said. “Here, we take a whole-county view.”

The walls are lined with televisions, streaming the latest television news coverage of the event. On the front wall, a projector beamed the latest information from other emergencies office across the state.

The name of nearly every county agency is displayed above a workstation, with several rows of computers across the room

Hubbard said that in situations that turn out to be less serious, only the core staff—which includes fire, police, public works, and the department of health—are present. Others tend to be involved more in the days following an event, when cleanup and recovery efforts need to be coordinated.

The Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management holds two drills a year, with one simulating a winter weather event and another for a summer event, which Hubbard noted may come in handy this weekend with Hurricane Irene slated to hit the area.

While projections change, Hubbard said that the office would probably open back up Saturday night in the event of a huricane

Earthquakes, he said, aren’t usually a part of the drill.

“It’s definitely a queasy feeling, knowing that it happened here,” Hubbard said.

Outside of the office, other county emergency services operate in a normal manner. 911 calls are still handled by dispatchers, but the office allows for a coordinated response so that efforts are not duplicated at times when resources may be scarce.

Miller, who was there representing the fire department, said he was there to act as a go-between between the field, call center, and dispatch. By the time the office closed around 5 p.m., the only significant damage reported were a few fallen ceiling tiles at Eastpoint Mall.

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