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About that earthquake…

As you know if you live on the East Coast of the United States or if you read websites other than this one or watch TV, a 5.9-magnitude earthquake hit near Richmond, Virginia. We felt pretty strong shock waves here at FP world headquarters. (At least they seemed pretty strong to me. I’m a lifelong ...

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

As you know if you live on the East Coast of the United States or if you read websites other than this one or watch TV, a 5.9-magnitude earthquake hit near Richmond, Virginia. We felt pretty strong shock waves here at FP world headquarters. (At least they seemed pretty strong to me. I’m a lifelong East Coaster and have nothing to compare it to.) And tremors were felt as far north as Massachusetts. This is obviously not a foreign-policy story by any means, but here are a few observations we can make that touch on the topics FP normally covers.

Events like this are big news when they happen in places with lots of journalists. All in all, this was a fairly minor occurrence. No one appears to have been hurt, and structural damage was minor. Nonetheless, it’s gotten wall-to-wall coverage on U.S. cable networks, even displacing the storming of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s compound as the top story of the day. It’s a similar story on Twitter. If a story of this magnitude happened in Indiana, not to mention, say, Argentina or Tanzania, it would not get anywhere near this level of attention.

Relatedly: Beware the trend stories! You can expect a steady stream of scaremongering stories in the next few days predicting all sorts of dire scenarios for the East Coast’s geological future. This nearly always happens after major quakes. "Earthquakes in Chile, New Zealand, and Japan? By my geometric calculations, California must be next!" The Earth experiences an average of 16 major quakes — above 7.0 — per year. They only become major media events when they happen in highly inhabited areas. Earthquakes on the East Coast are unusual, but hardly unheard of. Virginia seems to have a noticeable one every few decades.

Third: Expect the post-Fukushima nuclear debate to start up again. The quake triggered the shutdown of the North Anna nuclear plant in Virginia. Although backup power stayed on and the plant’s systems functioned as they were supposed to, that’s not going to be much comfort after recent events in Japan. North Anna is less than 50 miles from Richmond and about 90 from Washington — shorter than the distance from Fukushima to Tokyo.

The United States hasn’t had the same post-Fukushima nuclear backlash we’ve seen in some European countries. Will this now change? Stay tuned.

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