Town at epicenter of quake exhales as Irene passes

Staring out at her shell-shocked congregation Sunday, the Rev. Marian Windel felt the need to reassure her flock that God was not "mad at us in any way."

"For us, this past week has been trying at the least," the Episcopal minister said, her clear voice echoing off the high-pitched ceiling of the Church of the Incarnation, Mineral's oldest house of worship. "There was little, if anything, that we could have done to prepare for the earthquake. And who would have thought it would be followed by a hurricane?"

This little town of about 400 was the epicenter of a 5.8 magnitude earthquake Tuesday that rattled the east coast, opening cracks in the Washington Monument and awakening the region to fears they had previously believed a West Coast plague. As Hurricane Irene steamed up the coast, its eye drifting farther westward with each passing day, some in this old mining town northwest of Richmond feared the winds would finish the work the temblor had started.

"We were pretty much like, 'What did WE do to Mother Nature to come through here like this," Louisa County Fire Lt. Floyd Richard said as he stared at the darkening sky Saturday evening.

Whatever that might have been, Mother Nature must have decided that Mineral had suffered enough.

Mineral received a good soaking and some gusty winds, but Irene's fury stayed far east of the town. Richardson said they had higher gusts during a 1,000-acre brush fire last February.

The people of Mineral didn't even lose power in the storm.

"After it's all done and over, we're very fortunate," Mayor Pam Harlowe said.

The town — which, in the late 1800s, produced and shipped nearly half the nation's supply of iron pyrite — couldn't have stood much of a hit. Along Mineral Avenue, the town's main street, the scars of Tuesday's earthquake were everywhere.

A gaping hope had opened in the back corner of the post office. Much of the brick curtain along the roof of the town hall had fallen away, and tarps were all there were to keep out the elements. At Main Street Plumbing & Electric Supply, flying buttresses of plywood and two-by-fours held up the brick wall.

"Yes, we are open during construction," read a sign out front. "Please support all local businesses."

Mercifully, the quake appears to have done little or no damage to the nearby North Anna nuclear power plant. For the most part, a sense of resignation — of "What more could happen to us?" — pervaded the town.

At Miller's Market, where the quake brought down ceiling tiles, emptied the shelves and open long cracks in the concrete floor, they stocked up with bread, milk, water and other staples in anticipation of a rush that never materialized.

"We were expecting it to be a lot worse than it has been so far," said a bored-looking manager Beth Strong. As a precaution, they closed up shop at 6:30 p.m. — an hour and a half early.

Down the street, the Mineral Express Lane was closed for two days out of fear that the two-story brick building might collapse on the convenience store. As Irene approached Saturday, people were stocking up on gasoline, beer and scratch-off lottery tickets, but little else.

"I've noticed that Southerners ... take weather — like rain, snow, stuff like that, a lot more seriously than we do," said cashier Dawn Michisk, whose hometown of Sandy Hook, N.J., got hit worse by Irene than Mineral. "Oh my God. When it's going to snow, like, even an inch of snow, there's not a loaf of bread to be found. Not a gallon of milk to be found. Anywhere."

Dewey Stewardson came by to top off his gas tank. After Tuesday's quake, he said a little thing like Irene wasn't going to scare him any.

Watching TV on the bed with his cat, he thought a train had derailed. The temblor threw his television from the entertainment center, cracked his walls, splintered a floor joist and moved a 400-pound wood stove a foot across the floor.

Aside from tarring up the spaces in the roof where the chimneys separated from the house, Stewardson wasn't all that concerned about Irene's arrival.

"I'm 47 years old, and I ain't never been so scared in my life," he said. "And I figured if THAT didn't take me, this wasn't going to do nothing for us, you know?"

Across the street at the Lake Anna Smokehouse & Grill, Sante Reedy and his partner, Angel Bouchard, calmly sipped sweet tea and ate hushpuppies beside a plate-glass window, beneath a crack that extended the length of the restaurant.

"Well, isn't it the meteor or the comet that's coming in October?" Bouchard joked.

"Things happen in threes," friend John Giles added from across the table.

All the joking aside, people in Mineral know how lucky they were to have escaped a second disaster in one week.

The cicadas are still buzzing in the trees, but there is no sign of a plague of locusts. And while her well water is still muddy from all the seismic activity, Rev. Windel isn't expecting local creeks to start running red.

As she prepared her sermon, Windel said she was reminded of a hymn they had sung the week before. "In times like these," went the refrain.

"Our nerves are on edge," she said as light streamed in through a large stained-glass window depicting Jesus as the good shepherd. "We suffer some post-traumatic stress. We're jolted awake with aftershocks that come during the night. We wait for the other shoe to drop. In times like these, we need a savior. In times like these, we need an anchor."