The day Washington shook: 5.8 earthquake hits capital

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 23, 2011 

WASHINGTON — A magnitude 5.8 earthquake rattled nerves and jolted buildings in the nation’s capital Tuesday, a rare geological event that was felt up and down the East Coast from Georgia to Massachusetts.

The quake’s epicenter was about 83 miles southwest of Washington in Virginia and struck about 1:51 p.m. EDT, immediately sparking fears of a 9/11-type attack given that the area is not prone to temblors.

“This earthquake was the largest in intensity and extent in historic times,” Julie Dutton, a geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Earthquake Center in Boulder, Colo., told McClatchy.

Washington office buildings and centers of power were quickly evacuated in orderly fashion, but the massive volume of cell phone calls and text messages appeared to have crashed communications systems. The quake was felt on Martha's Vineyard, where President Barack Obama was playing golf. Reporters traveling with Obama said they felt it. The White House said late Tuesday that the president did not.

In an earlier statement, the White House said that Obama led a conference call an hour after the quake with homeland security officials and science advisers and was told that there were no reports of major infrastructure damage.

With memories of Japan’s post-tsunami nuclear problems still fresh, 11 U.S. nuclear plants — in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Michigan — went on low-alert status, declaring an “unusual event” because they felt the earthquake. This triggers closer review of operations by plant officials and regulators.

Late in the day, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a statement confirming that a 12th plant, the North Anna Power Station, operated by Dominion Virginia Power and relatively close to the epicenter, was on a higher alert status.

The North Anna station declared its alert — the second-lowest of the commission's four emergency classifications — "when the plant lost electricity from the grid following the quake just before 2 p.m. Tuesday," the NRC said. “Power is being provided by onsite diesel generators and the plant’s safety systems are operating normally. Plant personnel and NRC resident inspectors are continuing to examine plant conditions.”

The quake was felt on Martha's Vineyard, where President Barack Obama was playing golf. Reporters traveling with Obama said they felt the quake. There was no immediate word on Obama's reaction.

In a statement, the White House later said that Obama led a conference call one hour after the quake with homeland security officials and science advisers and was told there were no reports of major infrastructure damage.

At New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, the temblor shook water bottles and magazines off of shelves and frightened travelers. Some buildings in Manhattan evacuated as a precaution, and several airports along the East Coast were briefly closed to ensure there was no significant runway damage.

The biggest scare, however, may have been in the nation’s capital, where the unexpected and unusual quake first felt like a wave followed by violent shaking. Drywall buckled and chipped, making surreal popping sounds. Light fixtures swayed as perplexed workers in office buildings struggled to make sense of why the ground was literally moving beneath their feet.

At a Target store in the capital, merchandise tumbled to the floor and stunned shoppers beat a quick path to the exits.

Even the Reston, Va.-headquarters of the U.S. Geological Survey, which tracks earthquakes, was evacuated on Tuesday.

“It shook pretty significantly,” said Anne-Berry Wade, an agency spokeswoman.

Earthquakes of that magnitude along the East Coast are rare, in part because they are normally not triggered by the same kind of grinding of the Earth’s plates that is a common trigger in California and the Pacific Northwest.

Quakes occur on faults within bedrock that are located everywhere below the United States.

The highest-risk areas for giant quakes are closest to subduction zones, where plate boundaries far below the Earth move together. The central Virginia seismic zone is not related to subduction zones, according to the Geological Survey, which didn’t immediately identify the precise fault where the quake originated.

Many much smaller magnitude earthquakes are common along the East Coast, and the USGS gets calls about them all the time, Dutton said. Still, there have been some similarly large quakes in history, including one in 1897 in Virginia.

In the eastern and central parts of the nation, earthquakes are less frequent than in the West but felt over a much wider area, the Geological Survey said, adding that a 5.5 quake in the East can be felt as far as 300 miles from where it occurred, and sometimes causes damage as far as 25 miles away.

The earthquake’s epicenter was closest to the Virginia town of Mineral, home to 430 residents. Mayor Pam Harlowe told McClatchy late Tuesday afternoon that the town hall was one of a small number of buildings still deemed unsafe. Several walls at the town hall had cracked, and shattered glass littered Mineral’s post office, she said.

“We’re a little shook up but other than that everybody’s good,” she said. “Everybody’s safe, so that’s what counts.”

The Pentagon, which was attacked on 9/11, was hastily evacuated after the quake, which triggered a water line break that added to the confusion and fear.

The National Cathedral suffered damage, too, said spokesman Richard Weinberg. Capstones plunged off three corners of its central tower and there was other exterior damage.

“I am holding pieces of the National Cathedral in my hand," Jennifer Walker, a self-described strategy consultant, wrote on her Twitter account. "This is very sad. How are they going to rebuild?”

The mass transit system that serves the capital and surrounding suburbs operated at a crawl Tuesday night, and Amtrak trains also were moving at below-normal speeds as tracks were checked.

Amtrak trains that were headed south from the northeast corridor toward Richmond, Va., and beyond switched to diesel power and off electric lines as a precaution. For passengers, it meant no air conditioning or working toilets, and they were advised to take a bathroom break during prolonged stops at Washington’s Union Station.

Lawyers and policy analysts on the top floor of the Treasury Department, next door to the White House, held hands and took shelter in door jambs as the 19th century marble building shook and ceiling tiles fell to the floor. At the State Department, some worried that a bomb might have gone off.

Sarah Little, an aide to Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., was walking near Union Station, the main Amtrak stop in the capital, when she saw a row of brownstone buildings lean far enough forward to touch some nearby trees.

“I’m not going in there for a very long time,” she said.

Schools in suburban Maryland and Virginia, some marking their first day of classes for the new school year, were evacuated as a precaution and traffic was snarled as worried parents quickly took to the roads. Workers at the Maryland state capitol in Annapolis were evacuated for half an hour. In the Virginia capital of Richmond, close to the epicenter, firefighters helped elderly residents evacuate an 11-story residential building where a stairwell had been damaged, but otherwise there were no reports of serious damage.

The epicenter was frighteningly close to two nuclear reactors at the North Anna Power Station, and their safety systems shifted into place, shutting down and moving to backup diesel generators as is standard procedure, said Karl Neddenien, a spokesman for Dominion Virginia Power.

Constellation Energy, which operates the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant along Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, said it also kicked into emergency mode after the temblor struck.

“Per our emergency procedures, we have declared an ‘unusual event’ at Calvert Cliffs. An unusual event is the lowest of four emergency levels. Both Calvert units remain at 100 percent power and are stable,” the company said in a statement. Plant officials stepped up observations, plant walkthroughs and monitoring of instruments.

August is a time when museums in the capital are chock full of tourists. They were sent scrambling outside, and many museums remained closed for the rest of the afternoon.

Once calm returned, opportunity replaced panic. At Duffy’s Irish Pub, a happy hour special was offered — pints of Guinness beer for $5.90. The bar, one of several that quickly offered quake-themed specials, noted that if the magnitude of the earthquake is revised, the special would change accordingly. Late in the day, the 5.9 quake was in fact revised to 5.8 magnitude quake, a cheaper drink now one more reason for the nervous in Washington to raise a glass.

(Erika Bolstad, David Goldstein, James Rosen, Lesley Clark, Tish Wells and David Lightman of the Washington Bureau contributed.) MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

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