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Is East Coast prepared for truly powerful quake?

By Ben Nuckols

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 24 2011 3:46 p.m. MDT

Police tape surrounds the front of a quake damaged building in Mineral, Va., a small town close to the epicenter, Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2011. It was the most powerful earthquake to strike the East Coast in 67 years, shaking buildings and rattling nerves from South Carolina to Maine.

Steve Helber, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — There was a crack in the Washington Monument, and capstones were broken at the National Cathedral. In the District of Columbia suburbs, some people stayed in shelters because of structural concerns at their apartment buildings.

A day after the East Coast's strongest earthquake in 67 years, inspectors assessed the damage and found that most problems were minor. But the shaking raised questions about whether this part of the country, with its older architecture and inexperience with seismic activity, is prepared for a truly powerful quake.

The 5.8 magnitude quake felt from Georgia north to Canada prompted swift inspections of many structures Wednesday, including bridges and nuclear plants. An accurate damage estimate could take weeks, if not longer. And many people will not be covered by insurance.

In a small Virginia city near the epicenter, the entire downtown business district was closed. School was canceled for two weeks to give engineers time to check out cracks in several buildings.

At the 555-foot Washington Monument, crews found a 4-inch crack late Tuesday in the side of the monument's pyramidium — the section at the top of the obelisk where it begins narrowing to a point. The damage was discovered during a visual inspection by helicopter. It cannot be seen from the ground.

The monument, by far the tallest structure in the nation's capital, was to remain closed indefinitely. It has never been damaged by a natural disaster, including earthquakes in Virginia in 1897 and New York in 1944, said Bill Line, a National Park Service spokesman.

Tourists arrived at the monument Wednesday morning only to find out they couldn't get near it. A temporary fence was erected in a wide circle about 120 feet from the flags that surround its base. Walkways were blocked by metal barriers manned by security guards.

"Is it really closed?" a man asked the clerk at the site's bookstore.

"It's really closed," said the clerk, Erin Nolan. Advance tickets were available for purchase, but she cautioned against buying them because it's not clear when the monument will open.

"This is pretty much all I'm going to be doing today," Nolan said.

Tuesday's quake was centered about 40 miles northwest of Richmond, 90 miles south of Washington and 3.7 miles underground. In the nearby town of Mineral, Va., Michael Leman knew his Main Street Plumbing & Electrical Supply business would need — at best — serious and expensive repairs.

At worst, it could be condemned. The faÇade had become detached from the rest of the building, and daylight was visible through a 4- to 6-inch gap that opened between the front wall and ceiling.

"We're definitely going to open back up," Leman said. "I've got people's jobs to look out for."

Leman said he is insured, but some property owners might not be so lucky.

The Insurance Information Institute said earthquakes are not covered under standard U.S. homeowners or business insurance policies, although supplemental coverage is usually available.

The institute says coverage for other damage that may result from earthquakes, such as fire and water damage from burst gas or water pipes, is provided by standard homeowners and business insurance policies in most states. Cars and other vehicles with comprehensive insurance would also be protected.

The U.S. Geological Survey classified the quake as Alert Level Orange, the second-most serious category on its four-level scale. Earthquakes in that range lead to estimated losses between $100 million and $1 billion.

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