A 7.0 quake in South Carolina? Not impossible, scientists say

An earthquake of the magnitude that struck Haiti three weeks ago is not an impossibility for South Carolina, seismologists say.

"A lot of the things we're seeing in Haiti — where the harbor sinks a little and homes are sinking into the ground because of soil liquefaction — we saw in Charleston in 1886," said Erin Beutel, a seismologist and director of the College of Charleston's S.C. Earthquake Education and Preparedness Program.

The Charleston earthquake of 1886 measured 7.3 on the Richter scale, killed 60 people and was felt over 2.5 million square miles, including in Beaufort, where church bells rang and chimneys collapsed.

As Haiti digs out from the Jan. 12 quake, researchers and state emergency management officials say residents should be aware of the Palmetto State's own seismic past.

While a 7.0 magnitude quake might be a once in every 500-year occurrence in South Carolina, the state's coastline is still at significant risk of a sizable earthquake, Beutel said.

"That doesn't mean we aren't at risk of experiencing a 5 or 6," Beutel said. "If an earthquake like that happened in Beaufort or Charleston or Columbia, it would cause major damage to roads, infrastructures and buildings. The danger is that we just don't know when that's going to happen. It could happen at anytime. There's just not enough data to predict when that might happen."

South Carolina experiences between 20 to 30 earthquakes a year, three to eight of which are strong enough to be felt, according to geologists. The last recorded earthquake in South Carolina occurred in September about 20 miles northwest of Columbia and registered a 1.5 on the Richter scale, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

About 70 percent of all recorded earthquakes in South Carolina have occurred in and around Charleston County, with a cluster of earthquakes striking Orangeburg County and parts of the Upstate, according to the S.C. Emergency Management Division.

The Charleston area lies in one of the most seismically active spots along the East Coast: two steeply dipping faults near Summerville and Bowman, according to the agency.