Early morning earthquake shakes metro Atlanta

It left some folks shaken. Others never stirred.

A magnitude 4.4 earthquake rattled many in metro Atlanta awake before the sun rose on Wednesday morning, the strongest tremblor to strike the region in decades. 

Jennifer Edwards described an unnerving jolt from slumber.

“My bed shook from side to side and my house creaked and popped simultaneously,” the Conyers resident said.

Angela Stalcup of Atlanta missed the excitement. “Slept right through it,” she said.

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A talker, yes. A shocker, no.

We don’t necessarily live in an ‘earthquake zone,’ but our earthquake risk is not zero,” said Andrew Newman, a professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. “There’s no place that’s absolutely devoid of earthquakes.”

The seismic activity - officially a quake and three aftershocks - emanated from a point in east Tennessee about 160 miles north of Atlanta. Its epicenter was a couple of miles from the Watts Bar Nuclear plant, but no damage was detected at the site.

“Engineers and site personnel are conducting detailed inspections at all of our facilities in the area including nuclear plants, fossil plants and dams as a precaution,” the Tennessee Valley Authority said in a statement. “All plants continue to operate safely.”

Nuclear plants are designed and built to withstand expected levels of seismic activity in their specific areas, said Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Roger Hannah, who is based in Atlanta. They are outfitted with equipment to measure ground movement.

No damage was reported at either of Georgia’s nuclear plants, Plant Hatch in southeast Georgia and Plant Vogtle south of Augusta, he added. Neither municipalities here nor in areas closer to the activity reported damage.

While we might not think of Georgia as quake country, the ground does shake with some regularity. More than three dozen earthquakes of magnitude 2.5 or greater have occurred in Georgia since 1974, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

A 4.3 magnitude quake occurred in Lincoln County in 1974, and Whitfield County experienced a 4.2 magnitude one in 1984. Georgia hadn’t experienced a magnitude 4.0 or higher event since then, until Wednesday morning.

“These little events are kind of nice, kind of a wake up call,” Newman said. Temblors that happen in this region tend to impact a larger area than those on the west coast.

“Eastern United States earthquakes travel farther. It’s because we have really strong rock beneath us,” Newman said. “A magnitude 3 here radiates a lot farther, and shakes like a magnitude 4 in California.”

There’s no east-coast counterpart to the San Andreas Fault, he continued.

“There’s not a single fault line,” he said. “It’s a wide zone of earthquakes, kind of a belt.”

Also, the east coast is the west coast’s topographic elder.

“The Appalachian Mountains used to look like the Himalayas,” Newman said. Millions of years of erosion has whittled down the eastern U.S. mountain chain, while on the opposite side of the country, “the topography is active and dynamic.”

The deadly earthquake that struck Charleston in 1886 is the most significant seismic event in modern history to strike this region. It caused at least 60 deaths and more than $5 million in damage. Thousands of buildings, including Charleston’s beloved Emanuel AME Church, were leveled.

The powerful quake, estimated to have been a high-6 magnitude event, captivated Atlanta. Residents crowded into the offices of The Atlanta Constitution to hear the latest news. Two days after the quake, a front-page article quoted two butchers who thought at first that a burglar was breaking in.

“Each grabbed a pistol and ran out before they realized it was an earthquake,” they said.

U.S. Rep. A.D. Candler, who would later become Georgia’s governor, was at the Kimball House, a hotel located where a Five Points area parking garage now stands.

“I thought the building was going to fall in,” he said.

It’s possible that other such events, or ones even more powerful, have been felt in this region, but records don’t exist to reflect it.

“It’s really because we haven’t been around long enough,” is how Newman put it.

As with hurricanes, measured in category 1-5 strength levels, earthquake strength grows exponentially from one magnitude to another. Experiencing a magnitude 3 event in our region isn’t terribly unusual, but more powerful quakes happen with far less frequency.

“The unfortunate thing is we never know when a magnitude 7 is going to strike,” Newman said.

He didn’t actually know metro Atlanta had experienced an earthquake on Wednesday until he read about it.

“I woke up but I wake up pretty frequently at that time,” he said, figuring the shaking might have roused him but that he didn’t realize it at the time.

“I looked at the clock and went back to sleep.”

AJC reporter Matt Kempner and data specialist Jennifer Peebles contributed to this report.

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