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The Earth trembled in Md., but not everybody gets the shakes

By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 17, 2010; A01

Our neighborhoods typically do not tremble.

Sometimes they are shaken by neighbors ensnared in political scandal. Lately, foreclosures have caused some quivers. Every now and then, someone who "kept to himself" winds up in handcuffs, jolting everyone.

But tremble we do not, which is why early Friday morning in a quiet Germantown neighborhood, hardly anybody suspected that the great trembling that awakened them was an earthquake -- or that the epicenter of the temblor was just up the block.

Joan Gibbons, a retiree who had been sleeping in her finished basement a few houses away, thought a school had blown up. Her dogs, barking and crying furiously, evidently thought worse. Individual things -- picture frames, lamps -- appeared, for a few fleeting seconds, in pairs.

Adam Helmy, 30, across the street from Gibbons, awakened from a sound sleep and quickly ruled out thunder. Too much shaking, for too long. An earthquake? Nope. Since when do earthquakes strike in Germantown? A bomb? A house explosion?

Residents near Waring Station and Forest Brook roads rushed outside in search of chaos, fires or worse, found nothing and returned home, flipping on their once-again stationary TVs: A quake it was, magnitude 3.6. In their neighborhood. Boy, was that weird.

"I get up sometimes in the morning, and everything is spinning. But this was different," Gibbons said. "If we've had earthquakes before, I never felt them. This one I did."

So did thousands of others, who flooded 911 centers with observations that amounted to, "Uh, my house is shaking." Emergency officials reported no damage. "Not a single tree branch down," said Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Assistant Chief Scott Graham. "This was a nonevent, thank God."

It was especially unsatisfying to the legions of local earthquake experts with ties to California, who tweeted and Facebooked their disrespect for the trembling. What trembling? One status update said, "Didn't know earthquakes could be measured as low as 3.6." A tweet: "MD is really freaking over this earthquake."

Ahem. Gibbons had this to say about the West Coast: "I will never visit California now. It was very scary. I could never live there."

There have been other earthquakes around these parts.

Amy Vaughan, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said Friday morning's quake was the largest recorded within about 45 miles of Germantown since a database was created in 1974. The largest before Friday's was a 2.70-magnitude temblor in 1993, she said. There was a 2.6 temblor in 1990, and quakes measuring 2.5 in 1997, 1993 and 1974.

One of the largest Washington area quakes rocked the region in March 1828. President John Quincy Adams recorded in his diary: "There was this evening the shock of an earthquake, the first which I ever distinctly noticed at the moment when it happened. It continued about two minutes, then ceased. It was about eleven at night. I immediately left writing, and went to my bedchamber, where my wife was in bed, much alarmed."

On Friday, a frequent question across the region, on a relatively slow summer day, was: "Did you sleep through it, or did you feel it?" Many, it turned out, didn't even roll over in their bedchambers.

Those who did not wake up included President Obama, whose home is equipped to withstand more than a 3.6er; W. Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, whose job it is to respond to much, much larger earthquakes; and pretty much the entire Laffman household.

Danielle Laffman's kids could probably skip from the front door of their home to the epicenter in less than a minute, but the family was surprised to learn of the quake -- via a text message from a friend in Clarksburg who wanted to know if they were okay.

"I guess I was pretty tired or something," Laffman said.

Her kids, standing nearby, giggled at all the commotion.

Those Laffmans, they can sleep through anything!

Staff writers Jonathan Forsythe, Mike McPhate, Dan Morse and Debbi Wilgoren contributed to this report.

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