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Mr. Gray said he vividly remembers asking his entourage if the Lincoln Navigator they were riding in needed a tuneup as it shook and rattled on their way back to city hall from the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial.

His deputy mayor for public safety, Paul Quander, said the city has made sure its emergency text alert system - many city employees have the system on their computer desktops - includes “scripts” on what to do in an earthquake.

“It’s something that caught us by surprise because it’s just not something that happens in D.C.,” Mr. Quander said. “It may happen every 100 years -and if it takes another 100 years, we’ll be prepared. If not, we’ll be prepared.”