EDITORIAL: Quakes remind S.C. of history, potential threat
The Times and Democrat
As 2021 ended and 2022 began, a series of minor earthquakes affected South Carolina’s Midlands.
Elgin, a community of fewer than 2,000 residents near the border of Richland and Kershaw counties, has been the epicenter of the seismic activity, starting with a 3.3-magnitude earthquake on Dec. 27. That quake clattered glass windows and doors in their frames, sounding like a heavy piece of construction equipment or concrete truck rumbling down the road.
In January, more earthquakes have been recorded nearby, ranging from 1.5 to a 2.6 in magnitude. No injury or damage was reported.
Now it’s May – and the quakes are back.
In the early hours of May 9, a 3.3 magnitude earthquake shook the ground in Elgin. The earthquake was followed by two back-to-back earthquakes an hour later registering 1.6 and 1.8 magnitudes.
The three quakes pushed South Carolina’s 2022 earthquake tally to 23, with 19 happening within 35 miles of Columbia. Historically, 70% of earthquakes in the state happen along the Coastal Plain, but because the state isn’t considered a hot spot for earthquake activity, the recent midstate quakes are a bit of a mystery.
According to the South Carolina Emergency Management Division, the state typically averages up to 20 quakes each year. Clusters often happen, like six small earthquakes in just more than a week in 2021 near Jenkinsville, about 38 miles west of the most recent group of tremors.
Though quakes are nothing new to South Carolina, many people in the state are not affected. According to emergency management officials, about 70% of South Carolina earthquakes are located in the Middleton Place-Summerville Seismic Zone, about 12.4 miles (20 kilometers) northwest of Charleston.
Every year South Carolina has a week devoted to earthquake preparedness. And there is good reason for awareness.
Aug. 31, 2021, was the 135th anniversary of the largest earthquake to occur in the eastern U.S. In the late evening on that day in 1886, a magnitude 7 earthquake struck near Charleston, causing the loss of more than 100 lives. Many buildings collapsed or were heavily damaged, with economic losses estimated at more than $100 million in today’s dollars.
The quake was felt throughout much of the eastern and central U.S., with people reporting feeling it as far north as New York and as far west as Illinois and Missouri.
In 1999, retired T&D Publisher Dean B. Livingston wrote about what is recorded locally about that “unscheduled” occurrence that had a lot of people singing “Nearer My God To Thee.”
“The area was pounded for a week by quake shocks from four to 12 times a day. The Times and Democrat wrote of the earth’s rumblings: ‘This earthquake frightened many of the inhabitants into deep religious complex, such as was never known before, bringing about a great religious revival in the churches. …’
“One person wrote that ‘many thought the end of the world had come.’ Some terror-stricken citizens in Rowesville ‘ran to and fro exclaiming: ‘The great Judgment Day is at hand. Lord have mercy on me.” A T&D article noted that ‘many people prayed during the past two weeks who never prayed before.’
“A Sawyerdale citizen reported that ‘the flood of accessions to our various churches is almost unparalleled.’
“Residents of the city of Orangeburg were awakened when the first jolt hit. People in brick homes could hear the bricks ‘grinding together as the forces of the shocks increased.’ Many people complained of a nauseous sensation. Chimneys were shaken down, the Baptist church steeple was damaged and for several nights many families slept in the open, under sheds or in small buildings.
“As late as Oct. 14, The T&D reported that ‘shocks have become so common now that people soon throw off the peculiar feeling that they inspire, and go along as if nothing unusual had occurred. There is no telling when they (shocks) will end. …’
“Over in Vance, the quake was described as a ‘sound, a deep, muffled sound … resembling the distant thunder … the earth was one tremendous oscillation. Buildings creaked … poultry squawked, dogs howled, birds chirped; in fact, everything was completely aroused and powerfully demoralized … from 10 to 11 p.m., nine successive shocks were felt.’
“Two Orangeburg men were fishing on the Edisto River when the first big shock hit. They said the first noise sounded like a loud clap of thunder. ‘This was followed by the usual rumbling which was also very loud and deep. The course of the shake was distinctly marked by the falling of the berries and acorns from the trees as it passed.”
While they have no stories comparable to 1886, people of The T&D Region periodically experience tremors. With a large fault in the earth extending from Charleston into the region, when another major quake will come is unpredictable — but practically certain.