A 5.1 magnitude earthquake felt in Charlotte shortly after 8 a.m. Sunday was centered just over a mile south of Sparta, near the Virginia border, the strongest quake to hit North Carolina in more than a century.
In fact, it was the strongest earthquake in the state since 1916, according to the National Weather Service, when a 5.2 magnitude quake occurred near Skyland, just outside of Asheville.
Sparta is an Alleghany County town of about 1,800 people, 100 miles north of Charlotte.
People in the immediate area of Sparta reported “strong shaking,” the U.S. Geological Survey reported. The quake was centered about 2.2 miles deep, officials said. Photos posted on social media showed cracks in street pavement, brick facades on homes crumbling and items thrown off store shelves.
It was the strongest of six reported earthquakes centered in that region since Saturday. Others in the cluster ranged in magnitude from 2.1 to 2.6, according to the USGS.
People in the Charlotte region reported being roused from sleep by the shaking and comments began to flood social media.
Charlotte area residents were quick to point out this was just the latest unexpected development in a year that already brought a global pandemic, economic crisis, contentious presidential election and a hurricane — just last week — to North Carolina.
“I’m ready to get off of this 2020 roller coaster. I did not have earthquake on my Charlotte 2020 bingo card,” Erin Breeden wrote on Twitter.
Sean Bemis, a research scientist in the Virginia Tech earthquake lab, said earthquakes, particularly of this magnitude, are less common here than on the West Coast where tectonic plates are well-studied and active.
But, there is a history of seismic activity in this region, particularly around the Appalachian Mountains, he said. That includes a 5.8 magnitude earthquake in Virginia in 2011.
“We know these things happen (but) we’re still working on ‘what are the mechanisms that are driving these things to happen?’” he said.
Bemis said the Piedmont region’s saturated soil composition may have made it easier for the earthquake’s energy to move and residents in Charlotte and beyond to feel the rumble.
USGS officials Sunday afternoon estimated there was a 45% chance for aftershock earthquakes of magnitude 3 or greater in the next week. The estimates for another quake magnitude 5 or greater are much lower, at 1%.
”We expect there to be aftershocks after an earthquake of this size,” Bemis said, echoing analysis from USGS scientists.
Researchers will study this event, Bemis said, which could inform policy recommendations for building codes, infrastructure and other safety measures.
“It’s telling us a damaging earthquake is possible,” he said.
“YOU KNEW RIGHT AWAY IT WAS AN EARTHQUAKE”
The U.S. Geological Survey said reports are coming in around the greater Charlotte region, and from as far south as Augusta, Ga., and as far north as Staunton, Va.
While some expressed dismay online at sleeping through the big event, Charlottean Shari Carriker couldn’t have missed it.
Carriker was eating breakfast in the family’s second home just two miles outside Sparta when the house shook for about 10 seconds.
”You knew right away it was an earthquake. There was no question about it,” she said.
They have seen pictures of damage nearby on social media and are checking on friends and neighbors. They are, she said, just literally and figuratively “shook up.”
“We have no damage, except the coffee in my husband’s coffee cup that sloshed out,” she said. “But it was scary. Really, really scary.”
It wasn’t their first earthquake, she said, recalling feeling an earthquake and seeing a resulting landslide from a distance in El Salvador while they were there building homes with Habitat for Humanity in 2001. But Sunday’s quake felt stronger.
Sparta Town Manager Ryan Wilmoth told the News & Observer that county and city officials declared a state of emergency around 3 p.m. Sunday.
The reports of damage throughout Alleghany County include residential structural damage, chimneys collapsing and a town water main break. Wilmoth also said there are reports of “very minor injuries.”
While damage appeared localized to that area, North Carolinians across the state were quick to report feeling the quake.
“It was very strong outside of Boone at Powder Horn Mountain. The entire house shook,” Rhonda Hager tweeted.
“Mount Airy, N.C. heard a loud rumbling noise from the earth in the whole house shook I could feel it under my feet. It seemed to last for about 5 seconds maybe longer,” Rebecca Snody posted on the USGS Twitter feed.
“Felt it in Avery Co N.C. 55 gal fish tank was rolling,” Bobby Cantrell tweeted.