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Saturday, June 15, 2024


June 12, 2002 – Lamps rattled, glassware shook and the hills of St. Thomas rumbled as a moderate earth tremor rolled underground Wednesday morning. The quake also was felt in Frederiksted on St. Croix and on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands.
Seismologists at the U.S. Geological Survey Earthquake Center recorded the 4.5 Richter Scale tremor at 8:48 a.m. While the measurement was mild on a scale set to measure potential disaster, several St. Thomas residents said it was the worst quake they had ever felt.
There is a logical reason for that. The tremor was centered at 18.06 degrees north latitude and 64.94 degrees west longitude, according to the USGS web site. Charlotte Amalie harbor sits at 18.3 degrees north latitude and 64.93 degrees west longitude. That places the center about 20 miles south of Charlotte Amalie, halfway between St. Thomas and St. Croix.
The quake occurred 19 miles under the Earth's surface, according to the USGS data.
Fortuna resident Jane Higgins e-mailed the Source saying, "That was the most powerful earthquake I've ever felt … sounded like six water trucks crashing down a hill here in Fortuna." She said she couldn't detect any damage to her swimming pool, which had been drained for cleaning, "but the tin on the roof sure rattled."
St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce executive director Joe Aubain said he was just stepping out of the shower when he heard a rumble coming from the hills near his North Side home. "The book shelf was shaking, the glasses were clinking," he said.
Meanwhile, at the Chamber of Commerce office in downtown Charlotte Amalie, Jackie Bernier was sitting down to her computer. "I was very scared," she said afterward. "The whole building was shaking. That was the hardest shake I ever felt. You could see everything moving on my desk."
Bernier called her boss and said she also had heard the tremor coming. Aubain told her that may have been because the offices are in a wooden structure that would be more sensitive to shifts underground than a concrete or brick building would be.
One person in Smith Bay, who asked not to be named said, "It's the worst one I've ever felt here in Smith Bay."
St. Thomas residents were not alone in getting the Wednesday morning wake up call. On the eastern end of St. John, Mary Blazine said she and her husband, Les Anderson, "heard what was a little bit like a rumble, then we felt a bit of a shake," But in comparison to other tremors she has felt at her end of the island, Blazine called this one "pretty minor."
On St. Croix, Dorothy James was sitting at her desk at The Village in Frederiksted when she felt her chair moving and the building shaking.
Claver Lazare at the St. Croix Foundation for Community Development offices at Chandler's Wharf in Gallows Bay said, "We felt it. We said, 'That must be an earthquake.'"
On St. Thomas, at the western end of Charlotte Amalie, Clayton Sutton, deputy director of the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency, said it was a ringing phone that alerted him to the seismic event. VITEMA is responsible for tracking earthquakes across the territory.
Initial reports seemed to indicate that the greatest impact was felt across the center of St. Thomas, Sutton said. "At our location, what I felt wasn't the greatest," he said. "We got some calls from around the hospital. They said it shook them."
Callers to WVWI Radio on St. Thomas said the tremor also was felt on Tortola. Scientists say some of the most intense earthquake activity in the region originates near the British Virgin Island of Anegada.
In recent years, emergency managers in the U.S. Virgin Islands have been seeking to educate the public about the prospects of a major earthquake of Richter Scale 7.0 or more. Earthquakes of that magnitude cause extensive damage and can be life threatening. The last such event in the Virgin Islands in turn generated a tsunami which caused widespread destruction in the harbor areas of Charlotte Amalie and Frederiksted in 1867.
Scientists say this area can expect a major quake about once every hundred years.
But Carolyn Bell, public affairs officer for the U.S. Geological Survey, had some comforting words: "Earthquakes don't kill people; buildings do."
Bell said that stronger building codes and hurricane mitigation work also protect communities from earthquake damage.
Virgin Islands homes and other buildings have been brought into compliance with such codes and other mitigation procedures since Hurricane Hugo struck in 1989. The territory's building code was strengthened to comply with federal guidelines for hurricane-prone areas in the aftermath of Hurricane Marilyn in 1995.
Indeed, skyscrapers built to code tend to hold up better against earthquakes than the kind of stucco or mud structures often found in places such as Mexico, Turkey and Afghanistan, Bell said.
Three- and four-story structures built on columns not engineered to flex are particularly deadly, she said.
Waverly Person, geophysicist with USGS in Golden, Colo., echoed Bell's assurances. "This was a light earthquake," he said. It was because it occurred relatively close to the surface that people heard the rumbling before feeling the movement.
Person said earthquakes are considered light to moderate and non-destructive when they measure under 5.0 on the Richter Scale. "The whole area is highly seismic," he said, and subject to continual tremors, "but fortunately most are not of a destructive nature."
He said Wednesday's quake was too small to expect aftershocks. What is more common in the Caribbean area are "series" of quakes, he said, most of them too small to be felt.
VITEMA's director, Harold Baker, said his staff is now in constant communication with the seismic center at the University of Puerto Rico for updated reports on subsequent tremors. No one can say when or how often they may occur, or how strong they may be, he noted.
The last noticeable quake occurred on April 8 and was centered at 18.4 degrees north latitude and 65.0 degrees west longitude, very close to where Wednesday's quake occurred.

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