Bloomberg News

Washington Cathedral, Visitors, Residents Rattled by Earthquake

August 24, 2011

Aug. 24 (Bloomberg) -- A 5.8-magnitude earthquake, the biggest recorded in Virginia in more than a century, rattled Washington, D.C., and prompted the evacuation of the White House. It shook stones loose from the National Cathedral, shuttered Washington monuments and forced the shutdown of nuclear reactors in Virginia.

The temblor struck just before 2 p.m. yesterday in Virginia, almost 90 miles (145 kilometers) southwest of the U.S. capital and 3.7 miles below the earth’s surface, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. With many buildings evacuated, no serious injuries were reported in Washington.

Just weeks from the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, federal workers found themselves streaming out of offices, turning to social media sites like Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. to check on family and friends. Federal officers shooed tourists out of national monuments and the White House.

“The Secret Service and armed guards started telling us to leave, firmly,” said Barbara Maring, 42, who was finishing a tour of the White House with her husband and three children. She at first worried that the floor shaking beneath her was caused by a bomb. “Our kids won’t ever forget that experience.”

The evacuation of office buildings throughout the city caused traffic gridlock. Flights in and out of Ronald Reagan National Airport were briefly halted. Amtrak railway service into Washington’s central hub was disrupted and Metro trains within the city slowed to a 15-mile-per-hour crawl.

Reactors Shut Down

Both of the reactors at the North Anna Power Station in Mineral, Virginia, the epicenter of the quake, shut down automatically after the temblor, David McIntyre, a spokesman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said in an e-mail. No nuclear plants have been evacuated, McIntyre said.

The North Anna plant lost power and was running cooling systems on diesel generators, he said. Twelve plants from North Carolina to New Jersey felt the earthquake and went to the first of four emergency classifications while continuing to operate, he said. North Anna was on an alert status that is the second emergency classification, he said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said in a statement that there were no early reports of major damage. Officials in Washington and Virginia reported only minor injuries. Kathy Zeiler, who teaches at a high school in Mineral, said there were only about six or eight minor injuries among the 1,400 students who evacuated as the earth started to move.

“It was the sound that was so incredibly frightening to me,” Zeiler said. “It was a sound I never heard. I thought the bowels of the earth were going to split open.”

Cathedral Damaged

In Washington, the National Cathedral sustained “significant damage” to its central tower, said Richard Weinberg, a spokesman for the cathedral. Stones fell from three of the tower’s four pinnacles, and one pinnacle appeared to be leaning, Weinberg said.

The cathedral, used for state funerals for leaders such as President Ronald Reagan, also sustained damage to its flying buttresses and smaller pinnacles, Weinberg said. The tower represents the highest point in the city because the building is situated on a hill.

The House and Senate are both on August recess, and President Barack Obama is on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, where reporters felt the temblor. Obama didn’t feel it, according to a White House spokesman.

Obama, on a conference call on the earthquake with aides, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, was told there were no initial reports of major infrastructure damage, according to a White House statement.

A few buildings aside from the cathedral sustained damage in Washington, including the Embassy of Ecuador, said Pete Piringer, a spokesman for the city’s fire department.

Alarms at Airport

At National Airport in Virginia near Washington, alarms went off and objects tumbled from shelves. The airport, a hub for lawmakers traveling to and from their districts, wasn’t evacuated and officials said there was no significant damage. Some inbound flights to National were held at their points of origin, the Federal Aviation Administration website said.

Nearby, the Pentagon quickly evacuated after the tremors, with hundreds milling in the courtyard. The mood lightened after people were alerted on mobile devices that the shaking was caused by an earthquake and not another terrorist strike.

A damage assessment by the Pentagon’s Washington Headquarters Services found only a burst pipe that caused “considerable standing water,” according to an announcement over the loudspeaker system installed after the Sept. 11 attack.

Decisions about emptying federal buildings varied. The U.S. Capitol and surrounding office buildings were evacuated, while the Supreme Court and State Department weren’t. And some workers didn’t wait for an order.

‘Can Still Run’

“The whole building started shaking and people started running,” said Harryette Anderson, of Fredericksburg, Virginia, a legal assistant at the Justice Department. “It really scared me. I thought the building was going to cave in. I just grabbed my purse and people followed me. I’m 65, but I can still run.”

The Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and Jefferson Memorial were closed while engineers assessed whether there was damage after no initial signs of problems, said U.S. Park Police Sergeant David Schlosser.

“We want to take a closer look,” Schlosser said. “They have heavy stones overhead. We don’t want anybody getting hurt.”

Washington Quakes

While it’s rare for an earthquake to rock Washington, there have been a few notable temblors in the area.

A February 1774 quake knocked houses off their foundations in suburbs of Richmond about 62 miles from yesterday’s epicenter, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. An 1828 shock in southwestern Virginia, felt in Washington, caused President John Quincy Adams to liken it to the heaving of a ship at sea. The largest damaging earthquake (magnitude 4.8) in the seismic zone occurred in 1875, according to the U.S. survey.

Inside the Capitol building, the tremor rocked the complex, setting the ornate chandeliers in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office jangling. Hill aides tweeted photos of small cracks in the plaster walls and accounts of books pitching off shelves.

Confusion was widespread, with Capitol police officers initially telling individuals to return to their offices. One was overheard asking what to do. Moments later, individuals were told to evacuate to a park along Constitution Avenue.

The exodus from Capitol Hill left surrounding streets full of people walking about, a scene repeated all over the city.

Downtown Washington traffic was in gridlock, blocking ambulances with their sirens on. Express buses took 10 minutes to travel a city block.

Early Workday End

Bars and restaurants rushed to take advantage of what was an early end of the workday for many office employees. Brasserie Beck, a downtown Belgian restaurant, was offering draft beers for $5.90 -- a reference to the quake’s initial scale, Jaclyn Stetler, a hostess at the restaurant, said in a phone interview.

Some people carried on with work. Senator Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, presided over a 22-second meeting of the Senate in a building near Union Station down the street from the Capitol, according to Reid’s office.

Neither chamber may adjourn for more than three days without the permission of the other. That means at least one member must show up to bang the gavel, deal with any minor business issues and gavel out.

Erin Schwartz, who recently returned from Seattle to her hometown in Arlington, Virginia, said she had been more concerned about an earthquake on the West Coast. The tremor made her feel “kind of like the earth was Jello,” she said.

“The car in front of me was shaking in a different direction than mine,” she said.

Her fiancé, whose downtown office building was evacuated, texted her one word: “Earthquake!”

--With assistance from Greg Stohr, Roxana Tiron, Tony Capaccio, Steven Sloan, Jonathan D. Salant, Lorraine Woellert, Michelle Jamrisko, Angela Greiling Keane, Eric Martin, Heidi Przybyla, Julianna Goldman, Catherine Dodge, Brian Wingfield, Drew Armstrong, Julie Hirschfeld Davis, Alan Levin and Mark Silva in Washington, Viola Gienger in Wash Dc and Christopher Palmeri in Los Angeles. Editors: Jim Rubin, Mark Silva

To contact the reporters on this story: Nicole Gaouette in Washington at ngaouette@bloomberg.net; Kristin Jensen in Washington at kjensen@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net


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