The earthquake that rumbled many Bulloch County residents from their sleep early Saturday morning was the first in the area in decades and the strongest earthquake to register in Georgia since 2014.
The U.S. Geological Survey reported a magnitude 3.9 earthquake occurred at 4:05 a.m. Saturday and was centered about 4½ miles east of Stillmore and 5 miles west of Metter. A 3.9 earthquake measured on the Richter scale is considered a “Minor,” bordering on “Light,” event.
The Richter scale was developed in 1935 by Charles Richter. A Minor earthquake is described as “felt by many people; no damage,” while a Light earthquake is “felt by all, minor breakage of objects.”
There were no reports of damage from the earthquake in the Bulloch County area.
Bulloch Public Safety/Emergency Management Agency Director Ted Wynn said his office called him at 4:30 a.m. to report some of the equipment in the 911 office was visibly shaking, but there was no damage reported anywhere in the community.
Candler County Sheriff John Miles also reported no damage.
The earthquake was first recorded as 4.5 magnitude, but it was soon reduced to 3.9. Still, according to data from the Geological Survey, it is the most powerful quake to hit Georgia or South Carolina since 2014. That year, a 4.1 magnitude earthquake centered in McCormick County in South Carolina was felt well into Georgia. The most recent earthquake of any size in the area prior to Saturday was a 3.6 magnitude event 18 years ago, also in Metter.
Also, according to U.S. Geological Survey data, it is the first earthquake above 1.5 on the Richter scale to hit the Savannah area, which includes Bulloch, in at least the past 365 days. There have been 39 total earthquakes above 1.5 in Georgia in that same time frame.
“For one to hit so close to Statesboro is unusual,” said Dr. James Reichard, a professor of geology at Georgia Southern University for the past 26 years. “We are in a tectonically quiet area, so in that sense, it is unusual.”
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, earthquakes are far more prevalent west of the Rocky Mountains and Hawaii than in the eastern part of the nation.
“Most people have heard of plate tectonics and are aware of big plate fault lines like the San Andreas Fault in California,” Reichard said. “What’s causing our earthquakes here are old buried faults associated with the opening of the Atlantic Ocean about 140 million years ago when the two continents pulled apart and created these faults.
“We’re sitting on the Coastal Plain sediment that is overlying these ancient faults that run up and down the East Coast. Most of the earthquakes that occur are really small, but on a rare occasion you get one like in Charleston in 1886 that was huge — 7.5 on the Richter scale.”
The earthquake that hit Charleston in 1886 was the most damaging to ever hit the eastern United States and the most destructive in the entire U.S. in the 19th century. That quake — 136 years ago — has had a residual effect through today on building construction up and down the East Coast and inland.
“All the buildings on the Georgia Southern campus are seismic-engineered because we actually are in a high-seismic hazard zone,” Reichard said. “Not really high. But the U.S. Geological Survey map shows us in a hazard zone.
“That’s mostly because of the Charleston quake in 1886. If we had a repeat of the Charleston quake, imagine what it would be like to not be able to stand outside. That’s what we would face in Statesboro in a repeat of the Charleston quake.”
According to maps posted on the U.S. Geological Survey web page, at least some effects of Saturday’s quake centered near Stillmore could be felt from Macon in the west, to Waycross to the south, to the Atlantic coast from Brunswick to Hilton Head to the east and Greenwood, S.C., to the north.
At about a half-mile deep, “this was a very shallow quake,” Reichard said. “When they’re shallow, you’re more likely to feel them on the surface. That’s one reason we felt it so much more in Statesboro. Most of the larger quakes originate 20 miles or so below the earth’s surface.
“The reason we feel them across a wider geographic area is partly because they are shallow, but also because of the geology. Our rocks here are really old and they are harder. So, they transmit the energy from the earthquake further.”
In the 26 years he has been in Statesboro, the geology professor said he had never felt an earthquake here before — and he still hasn’t.
“Unfortunately, I was in a deep sleep and didn’t feel it,” Reichard said. “But most people I spoke with did feel it. Maybe we’ll have another one in the near future.”