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Moderate quake felt in region ; Tremor catches many by surprise

The earthquake that reverberated through the region Wednesday was a moderate one, but it was enough to make you thankful our burden is snow not quakes.

The midday earthquake measured a magnitude of 5.0, and while centered 35 miles outside the Canadian capital of Ottawa, it sent tremors through Western New York and at least eight U.S. states. Locally, the rumbling rattled residents from Springville to Lewiston.

Their reaction was the same: What the heck was that?

"It was really weird," said Charles McCollum, an executive at the investment firm Harold C. Brown & Co., whose offices are on the 38th floor of the HSBC Center. "I was sitting here and then my chair was shaking and my computer screen was wobbling back and forth."

The U.S. Geological Survey initially said the quake had a magnitude of 5.5 when it occurred at 1:41 p.m., but the agency later reduced it to 5.0.

That's considered a "moderate" quake when compared with others around the world, said Andre Filiatrault, director of the University at Buffalo's Structural Engineering and Earthquake Simulation Laboratory.

Still, experts said, it's unusual for this corner of the globe, and was one of the larger quakes felt in this region.

It's not uncommon for tremors to be felt three or four times a year in these parts, but the vast majority of those earthquakes are in the magnitude of a 2 or 3, said Don Blakeman, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey's National Earthquake Information Center.

"It's very infrequent that we have an earthquake of this magnitude," added Gary S. Solar, an associate professor of geology at Buffalo State College, who studies tectonics.

As a precaution, safety checks were being made on public facilities, like the Mount Morris Dam in Livingston County and the Peace Bridge.

But in the end, there were no immediate reports of serious damage or injury, either locally or closer to the epicenter, where several buildings in Toronto and the Ottawa regions were evacuated.

In fact, Blakeman said, it would take a quake with a magnitude of 6.0 or greater to cause serious injuries or fatalities in the United States.

Wednesday's quake gave everyone a surprising jolt.

While the shaking lasted for about 30 seconds, some swore it felt longer.

"I was sitting here at my desk forecasting the weather," said David Thomas, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service at Buffalo Niagara International Airport in Cheektowaga. "All our monitors started to shake."

"It lasted for about a minute," Thomas said. "It kind of came on slowly."

Folks felt it in Springville and West Falls and Lewiston. They felt it from Alden to Ransomville, Elma to St. Catharines.

Even pets sensed something was amiss Wednesday.

Gina Browning, director of public relations at the SPCA Serving Erie County, said the injured bird who has been convalescing in her office at the SPCA's Tonawanda location, trembled and screamed all day Wednesday before the quake.

Then, when the humans stood up to discuss the quake, two dogs in the office area suddenly had a scuffle.

"I never put two and two together with the earthquake and the animals' behavior until later," Browning said.

Unlike California and other earthquake-prone regions of the world, the area along the Ontario-Quebec border does not sit on an active fault line, Solar said.

Earthquakes occur in those areas when the edges of two tectonic plates bump into each other or slide against each other.

The Ontario-Quebec border area, however, is a seismic zone, where smaller earthquakes occur regularly when old, inactive plate boundaries shift because of gravitational pull, Solar said.

A U.S. Geological Survey database of most recent earthquakes, which goes back to 1973, shows a magnitude 3 quake in the Town of Tonawanda in 1995.

In 2007, there were two quakes in Hamburg and Attica. There was one in Newstead in 2008. In 2009, there was one on Jan. 26 in Newfane, one May 20 in Pendleton and one June 5 in Attica.

All were magnitudes between 2 and 3.

The two most serious earthquakes in this region occurred in 1935 -- a 6.1 magnitude -- and in 1732 -- a 6.2 magnitude quake that caused significant damage in Montreal, according to the geological survey.

"All I felt in my house was a quick little lurch," said Douglas Taylor, chief executive officer of Taylor Devices, a North Tonawanda company that makes giant shock absorbers to protect buildings from earthquakes. "It might have been a little more exciting in some of the taller buildings."

Michelle Mahaney, a software engineer who works on the seventh floor of Lafayette Court, lived in Southern California during the 1994 Northridge earthquake, so Wednesday she knew right away to stay put or find refuge under a reinforced doorway or strong table.

"After feeling that and experiencing how scary that was, then to feel this here, it was like, 'OK, I've been through worse,' " Mahaney said. " 'I know I'll be OK.' "

Mahaney's co-worker, Marge Polino, took a different approach.

"I was on a conference call, and I was like, 'OK, I think it's an earthquake. I'm out of here,' " Polino said. "I left the building."

But a block away, Brian McCarthy wondered what all the fuss was about.

"I didn't even notice," said McCarthy, as he worked an outdoor hot dog cart in Lafayette Square.

That wide variation in sensing the vibrations is common, said Mark Castner, director for the Braun-Ruddick Seismograph Station at Canisius College.

People in buildings constructed on heavy sedimentation were more likely to experience a fuller dose of the seismic waves, which slow down and become more amplified in softer sediment than in bedrock, he said.

"People moving around probably didn't feel it," said Castner, who was at Boston College Wednesday testing new instruments for the Canisius station. "If you were sitting down, especially in the upper floors of a building, you're going to feel it."

News Staff Reporters Steve Brachmann, Jay Tokasz, Denise Jewell Gee, Anne Neville and Jonathan D. Epstein contributed to this report.

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com

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