Washington is accustomed to occasional rumblings from nearby planes or frequent construction projects, but the nation's capital experienced what amounted to a real-life emergency drill Tuesday afternoon, just weeks before the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11.
The truth is, there wasn’t much more than a loud rumble, even a block from the White House, although some of the city’s taller buildings swayed. But even as puzzled local residents shrugged off the rare 5.8-magnitude earthquake, Washington quickly mobilized.
The city reacted exactly as many safety officials had planned. Buildings, including the Capitol and other federal buildings and monuments, were quickly evacuated as city officials set up several command centers at public parks in the downtown area. People were directed toward open spaces as structural engineers were quickly summoned to inspect older buildings. Staffers in the Pennsylvania Avenue building that houses the Newsweek/Daily Beast bureau were sent home for the day after inspectors discovered a crack.
"This is what we do," Capitol Police spokesperson Sgt. Kimberly Schneider told reporters. "We put our safety procedures into place.”
George Ogilvie, a spokesman for the U.S. Secret Service, told The Daily Beast that at the White House, all nonessential personnel were required to leave the West Wing and its surrounding buildings. "Essential" is a designation given to national-security employees and senior government officials monitoring events around the world. After a structural inspection, the White House was cleared for reentry.
The 5.8 quake, based about 90 miles southwest of Washington near Mineral, Va., could be felt in six states but most forcefully just south of the capital.
Initial worries spread to America's nuclear-power plants, six of which are along the East Coast in the zone of the quake. The North Anna nuclear plant in Virginia was immediately and automatically shut down as a safety precaution. Following the March tsunami and earthquake off Japan, safety systems in the U.S. had been fortified to ensure plants that process, use, and store radioactive nuclear fuel could be contained in the event of a similar earthquake or other natural disaster.
During a normally quiet week in Washington—President Obama is vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, and members of Congress are in their districts all month—federal workers were caught off guard. Just seconds after the shaking began, the microblogging website Twitter lit up with reports and questions about it. The streets quickly filled with everyone who evacuated. Cell-phone service was all but inoperative downtown.
The city's Metro system quickly shut down, then opened an hour later once an inspection was completed. According to safety protocols, trains were ordered to run no faster than 15 miles per hour, while Metro officials monitored the number of people allowed on each train. Flights at all Washington-area airports as well as New York's JFK, New Jersey's Newark International, and Philadelphia International were grounded; takeoffs and landings resumed after runways were inspected.
Around town, reports of damage poured into Washington police. The Pentagon experienced moderate flooding due to a broken pipe. At National Cathedral, a more than 100-year-old stone building that sits at Washington's high point, two of the church's stone pentacles broke off the top of the building. Stonemason engineers began inspecting each stone of the complex to ensure that the foundation was still intact.
Back downtown, many workers were allowed to return to work, while others were asked to go home. Washington's roads were filled with cars and buses in gridlocked traffic, many of them honking horns.
As the city began to return to normal, safety officials in D.C.—as well as in other urban areas, including New York City—vowed to continue structural inspections, especially among the city's older buildings. The U.S. Geologic Survey, meanwhile, reported that aftershocks were likely.