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In Midwest, 5.2 quake is 'Big One'

Centered in Illinois, the temblor is the largest to hit the region in 40 years, confusing residents.

April 19, 2008|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — Having grown up amid the Midwest's rolling farmland, Traci Hart and her family are used to weathering arctic-cold blizzards, rising floodwaters and powerful tornadoes.

But when the ground began to shake in the predawn hours Friday, the 40-year-old cafe owner from downstate Olney, Ill., fell out of bed in confusion. Her 13-year-old son told her that when he felt the vibrations, he "thought it was another meth lab blowing up."

Though the 5.2-earthquake that struck the heartland might elicit a yawn from temblor-savvy Californians -- they usually don't seek safety unless the magnitude inches closer to 6 -- out here folks already are calling it "the Big One."

The last quake of similar size to hit the area occurred in 1968, so many people weren't sure at first what was happening.

Tudy Teter, an office manager in Fort Wayne, Ind., blearily thought her bed was shaking because her cat was madly scratching itself. Margaret Gill, a retired church worker in Kirkwood, Mo., figured a storm was rolling into town. "When the bed started shaking, I thought, 'Wait, wind can't do that,' " Gill said.

Inexperience with this particular force of nature also meant not everyone knew what to do when the shaking started.

During an early morning broadcast at WHAS-TV in Louisville, Ky., listeners reportedly could hear one of the anchors yelling, "It's shaking in here!" At rival station WAVE-3 TV, meteorologist Kevin Harned yelled for his colleagues to take cover as he ducked to avoid the studio lights swinging wildly overhead.

"All morning, customers are arguing over whether we're supposed to run outside, or crouch next to a wall with the least amount of stuff hanging on it," said Hart, who owns Ophelia's Cup, less than 40 miles north of the quake's epicenter.

(If you're indoors when a quake hits, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, you should take cover under a sturdy piece of furniture, cover your face and stay away from glass and walls. If outdoors, move away from buildings and streetlights and stay in an open space until the shaking stops.)

The 4:37 a.m. quake, which caused little damage and no serious injuries, was centered a few miles outside of Bone Gap, Ill., a farming hamlet near the Indiana border, said David Russ of the U.S. Geological Survey.

The initial quake and a handful of aftershocks occurred in the Wabash Valley Seismic Zone. Tremors were felt across 16 states, from Kansas east to Tennessee, according to the USGS.

"The Earth's crust out there is a little older and colder than it is on the West Coast, which means it's a little more brittle," Russ said.

"Where the crust is a bit warmer, it can absorb the seismic energy more efficiently," and the vibrations don't extend out so far, he said.

In some ways, Russ said, Midwesterners simply are unaware of how much the Earth moves beneath their feet.

One of the country's most active earthquake areas, the New Madrid Seismic Zone, is adjacent to the Wabash Valley. In the winter of 1811-12, a series of temblors estimated from magnitude 7.5 to 8.0 hit the Midwest along the New Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid) fault line.

The ground shifted so violently that the Mississippi River's flow reversed direction.

Water and silt flooded hundreds of miles of farmland in Missouri, Illinois and Arkansas, thousands of structures were damaged, and the tremors were felt as far away as Washington, D.C.

On Friday, there was more curious chatter than devastation. Bricks were knocked from chimneys and church bells rang. Road crews scoured the region to see if any bridges or roadways were damaged.

But the temblors were strong enough to serve as confirmation to some that you have to be crazy to live in California.

"My daughters never believed that the cracks in the plaster in their grandmother's house came from an earthquake," said Sheila Trout, 33, who works at Hart's cafe. "When everything was shaking, they came screaming into my room. This morning, they finally believed me when I say that we live near a fault line.

"And they can't ever imagine moving to Los Angeles."

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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