Today’s news:

5.9-magnitude quake in VA shakes Queens

An earthquake hit Queens Tuesday afternoon and sent crowds of people streaming out of the borough’s largest mall, rattled businesses and shook homes with tremors that stretched along the East Coat from North Carolina to Boston.

The epicenter of the 5.9 quake struck near Richmond, Va., just before 2 p.m. Several buildings around the city were evacuated as a precaution, including City Hall in Manhattan, but only two properties in Brooklyn had measurable damage from the quake, according Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“This infrastructure is built to a pretty high standard,” he said at a news conference later in the afternoon.

An eyewitness who was in an aging office building near Queens Center Mall said the ceiling started to crumble as the floor oscillated and all the occupants rushed for the stairwell.

At least one ambulance and a fire truck were hindered by the growing crowd pouring out of nearby buildings and gathering on the asphalt of Queens Boulevard, the witness said. The Fire Department could not confirm her report.

In Bayside, the sturdy buildings on Bell Boulevard swayed back and forth for about 20 seconds and soon after the shaking stopped, several groups of alarmed people gathered on the street.

Evan Kragouras came into Bayside from his home in Bethpage, L.I., to get a haircut Tuesday afternoon at Dimitri’s Hair Design on Bell Boulevard,

“At first it felt like I had vertigo. I felt a little panicky, and then we came outside,” he said. “We weren’t sure what was happening because New York isn’t known for its earthquakes.”

City Councilman James Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows), who is also a trained geologist, said city residents were more at risk of being injured falling down the stairs of a building due to panic than the actual earthquake.

“This is something we don’t really expect,” he said of the quake’s tremors. “New York City has relatively little damage from earthquakes over the years.”

Gennaro said the last earthquake to make a direct hit on New York was in 1884, when a 5.3-magnitude quake struck just off Brooklyn but left hardly any devastation in its wake.

“It knocked down a couple of chimneys,” he said.

The councilman noted the city’s building code calls for structures to be able to withstand a 5.5-magnitude earthquake, which he said is the type of tremor that occurs in the city roughly once every 150 years.

Queens Village resident Tanya Alvarez said she went straight downstairs when she felt the tremor while working at TBO Sitescapes in a second-floor Bayside office.

“We were upstairs, and I thought my neighbor was kicking the door down or banging on the wall,” she said. “Oh, my God, it’s so scary. My boss said, ‘Go back to work,’ but if it happens again, I’m going home.”

In Forest Hills, the quake shook the offices of Community Board 6 on Yellowstone Boulevard.

Flights at the John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia Airports were grounded for less than an hour as a precaution but did not cause serious delays. Amtrak service was suspended for an hour but then resumed, according to the mayor.

The city’s subways and Long Island railroad kept moving on a normal schedule. Bloomberg said the only abnormality was the influx of 911 and 311 calls made following the tremors.

There was an average 6,900 911 calls per 30 minutes, compared to the average rate of 800 calls per half hour.

“I understand for many people this was a stressful afternoon,” Bloomberg said.

For some people, the quake was more of an amusement than a headache.

A spontaneous Facebook group formed called Long Island Earth Quake and several Twitter users used their 140 character messages to joke about how they survived the quake. Twitter announced later that it had 5,500 Tweets per second during the quake, which was a bigger average than when Osama bin Laden was killed.

Back in Bayside, one man expressed his own unconventional interpretation of the seismic event as he walked along Bell Boulevard shortly after it took place.

“Moammar Gadhafi just landed on the Long Island Rail Road tracks,” he said.

Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at csheets@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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