Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The largest Virginia earthquake in more than a century jolted the Washington, D.C., area on Tuesday, prompting widespread building evacuations, snarling traffic and sending emergency crews scrambling after reports of superficial damage and minor injuries.

The quake, felt as far away as Maine, Cincinnati and Atlanta, rumbled across the D.C. region at 1:51 p.m., bewildering tourists, residents and workers who spilled onto city streets while offices, schools and attractions were inspected for structural damage.

There were no immediate reports of serious injuries from the quake, which the U.S. Geological Survey said was centered about 34 miles north of Richmond, near Mineral, Va., and had a preliminary magnitude of 5.8.

The District’s monuments and museums were evacuated, and Freedom Plaza was jammed with tourists and federal workers who watched as emergency vehicles raced up and down Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the U.S. Capitol.

The Washington Monument will be closed indefinitely while the National Park Service inspects it for possible damage.

“It felt like nothing I felt before,” said Eben Burnham-Snyder, a Boston native who works at the Ford House Office Building. “It was 10 seconds of confusion, 15 seconds of paralysis, and 15 to 20 seconds of running to the doorway and realizing it really was an earthquake.”

Adding to the confusion, cellphone lines were jammed, prompting the Federal Emergency Management Agency to ask users to text or email instead of making calls.

Many workers returned to evacuated buildings after initial inspections, but some commuters were sent home early, swelling downtown traffic and routes exiting the District.

Metro said all trains were operating at 15 mph — significantly slower than usual — while track personnel conducted inspections on the entire rail system, the second-largest in the country. By 6:30 p.m., Metro track inspectors had reviewed 20 percent of the 106 miles of track — or about 21 miles.

Amtrak and regional train service was also disrupted. Washington Dulles International Airport and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport were closed briefly but reopened by late afternoon, federal and city officials said.

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray said no injuries or significant damage had been reported in the city as of Tuesday afternoon, but inspectors were out in full force to check on schools, buildings, roads, bridges and tunnels. The John A. Wilson Building was evacuated, and nonessential city employees were dismissed during the afternoon.

The quake caused “significant damage” to the Washington National Cathedral, particularly three of four spires atop the building’s central tower, officials said. Several decorative elements were also damaged and the cathedral sustained cracks on interior upper floors and in the flying buttresses around the apse at its east end.

One diner described a panicky scene at Union Station’s packed food court, where many dismissed the first tremor as the rumble of a particularly loud arriving train.

But the second tremor sent screaming patrons and tourists rushing for the escalators, as the ground shook and chunks of the court’s ceiling fell among the tables.

“It was like something out of a disaster movie,” one witness said. “We didn’t know if it was a train crash or a terrorist event or what. If one of those pieces of the ceiling had hit somebody, there would definitely have been some serious injuries.”

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell said the state sustained “very, very minor” damage and injuries from the quake, which briefly disrupted some polling places for Virginia’s primary elections. Scattered power outages also were reported across the area.

In Arlington, the location of some of the D.C. area’s tallest buildings, workers and residents fled high-rises as walls shook visibly and the quake was strong enough to knock books off of shelves.

“I was working, and I just felt a big vibration,” said Sweta Mehta, who was in her condo in the Courthouse neighborhood. “I thought it was some construction going on. Then it paused, and it started happening again, and I freaked out. I ran out and screamed in the hallways, but there was no one there. It was a really scary experience.”

Another Arlington resident, Pete Van Voris, noticed “a full inch to an inch-and-a-half of movement” of the walls in his condo.

“First, it was a real significant shake, a duration of six or seven seconds,” Mr. Van Voris said. “And then another one that was probably twice as large hit immediately thereafter. By that time, we were all moving down the stairs to get out of the building. The only thing I stopped for was a key and a computer.”

The start of the Washington Nationals game Tuesday night was delayed 21 minutes while Nationals Park was inspected.

A store clerk in Mineral told The Washington Times her store was “a disaster” by the time the minutes of shaking finally stopped.

“We have a train that goes by the store and at first we thought it was a train backing up or picking up off the tracks,” said the woman, who withheld her name because she was not authorized to speak publicly about the business. “It was shaking everywhere. Shaking the building.”

The woman said three customers and several employees had been in the store.

“God bless whoever was watching this store and those people — because two were old.”

The woman described a residential area in which “chimneys [were] hanging off roofs and a house up the road had been demolished.”

Within an hour of the quake, President Obama led a conference call with Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Greg Jaczko, and various White House staff, including National Security and Homeland Security advisers Tom Donilon and John Brennan, and Chief of Staff Bill Daley.

The president was told that there were no reports of major damage and no requests for assistance from state and local authorities, and he asked for regular updates on the situation, said deputy press secretary Josh Earnest.

A senior Obama administration official played down the role of the federal government, saying state and local authorities were handling the situation.

“There will be no federal response,” the official said. “We have checked in with all impacted states, and none of them have any issues or damage that require federal assistance.”

A spokesman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) told The Times that the two reactors at the North Anna, Va., nuclear power plant, a few miles from the epicenter of the quake, had shut down automatically when the plant lost off-site power.

“Everything appears to be working as it should, and the plant is in a safe condition,” said NRC spokesman David McIntyre.

The earthquake was classified as an “unusual event,” the lowest emergency event classification, by 12 other nuclear power plants in Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, he added. North Anna was the only plant reporting an “alert” status, the second-lowest classification level, and shut down.

The last earthquake in the D.C. area was in July 2010, when a 3.6 magnitude quake was centered near Germantown in Montgomery County. The last earthquake in the area of a similar magnitude to the one Tuesday was a 5.7 magnitude quake in Virginia’s Giles County in 1897.

Central Virginia is relatively prone to minor seismic activity, with small earthquakes striking the area as often as once every year or two, according to information provided on the geological survey’s website.

According to the geological survey, earthquakes east of the Rockies are typically felt over a much larger region — sometimes as much as 10 times larger — than those that occur on the West Coast. A 5.5 magnitude earthquake on the East Coast is typically felt as far as 300 miles away and can cause damage over as much as a 25-mile radius.

George Foresman, a former senior homeland security official who worked for the federal and Virginia governments, said that while the quake appeared to have caused little damage, it was nonetheless “a teachable moment … in the shadow of the Sept. 11 [10th] anniversary.”

“It’s a reminder to us all to dust off our emergency plans,” he said. “In general, people seem to have reacted well, apart from the cellphone thing,” said Mr. Foresman, calmly evacuating buildings and following safety procedures. “But it should be a reminder to all of us about the importance of preparedness at all levels — personal, corporate and government,” he said.

Tom Howell Jr., Dave Boyer and Shaun Waterman contributed to this report.

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