I felt the earth move: Covering a historic natural disaster

Aug. 23, 2011. Five years ago, I was eating a snack in my car in the parking lot of the Charlottesville Harris Teeter when I felt a small rumble. I looked at the older woman in the parking spot across from me, and she appeared to have no reaction.

I looked across the street and saw the window panels on a building shake.

Did I just feel an earthquake? Nah. It’s Central Virginia. Psh.

I opened up Twitter and saw lots of locals questioning what just happened. And I shared my thoughts.

Then I got a text from a friend.

“Are you alive?”

That followed a text from my brother.

“Are you near that earthquake?”

Apparently, yes. Yes I was.

It was a Tuesday, my day off. I quickly drove home, cutting my errands short. I turned on CNN and saw Wolf Blitzer talking about an earthquake with an epicenter in Mineral, just about 30 miles from Charlottesville. This small town was put on the national map.

I tried calling my station, but the phones were overloaded. I ran up to my bedroom, threw on a pair of jeans, a “TV-ready” shirt and some flip flops, and I drove into work.

As soon as I walked in, I was greeted with a quick “thanks” before being told, “Go out to the epicenter.”

“OK!”

I packed up a camera, loaded up an SUV and drove in the direction of Mineral, east down Interstate 64. I had no idea where I was going — no destination in mind. I was told to find damage.

There are no tall buildings in Central Virginia, especially Mineral. It’s a small town you’d expect to find in the rural south. General stores, few chain retailers, lots of quaint homes.

I was trying to make calls while driving (don’t follow the risky behavior of one-man-band reporters) and find out where I could possibly find effects from the earthquake. Viewers told the station to go to Shannon Hill Road. So I did. And I saw nothing.

There were a handful of chimneys that collapsed, but nothing too major. I slowly drove down the road and saw a woman retrieving mail. I pulled up next to her.

“Hi, I’m told that there were reports of damage in this area. Have you seen any?”

“Oh, yes, actually,” she responded, calmly. “This house over there has significant damage. Go take a look.”

She ushered me up the driveway to a house on a small hill, surrounded by trees. The home was severely damaged from the outside.

“Oh my gosh,” I said to the woman. “Who lives here?”

“I do.”

Jean Brunson returned home from work early after hearing about the earthquake. Her home was one of just a handful that saw significant damage.

Her husband eventually returned home, too. The couple was gracious enough to let me tour the inside of their damaged home. I was stepping over shattered ceramics and glass (in flip flops), navigating through tumbled furniture. Neighbors’ homes appeared to be fine. But the Brunsons caught the worst of the quake.

This is the same natural disaster that caused structural damage to the Washington Monument. It was felt all the way north in parts of Philadelphia and New York City. A 5.8-magnitude quake is rare on the East Coast; people in the West mocked the (over)reaction of an earthquake with such little impact.

But this is why I love local news. For a region not prone to such events, it’s certainly scary, and local stations can reflect the true impacts.

The Brunsons eventually rebuilt their home, at their own expense. They have earthquake insurance now; they did not before.

But life has moved forward for everyone. And as a reward for that, Alan Jackson performed a free concert for the town of Mineral. A reward well deserved.

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