Earthquake! Something Finally Shakes Up Washington
Business + Economy

Earthquake! Something Finally Shakes Up Washington

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

The earth has been shaking under our feet for a few years now, but never as dramatically as it did Tuesday in the eastern U.S. Washington, D.C.  has weathered a number of “cataclysmic” events this year, including the near shuttering of the government over a spending flap and the political brinksmanship over the debt ceiling, but shortly before 2 p.m. today Eastern Time, an earthquake tremor shook the city and virtually shut down the nation’s capital.

Gary Peacock, a financial manager for the Center for American Progress, knew right away there was something wrong as he was working out in a downtown health club: “I was doing some squats when all of the weights – tons of weights on the racks -- started  shaking.” Buzz Roberts, a domestic finance expert for the Treasury, had just finished up a conference call in his first floor office, when suddenly he and his colleagues felt “a little bit of rumbling and a little bit of shaking.”  Says Roberts:  “Nobody knew what it was so we walked away from the building as soon as possible,” said Roberts. “When you feeling something like that you want to move as quickly and safety as you can. “

For a city that has experienced terrorists attacks, anthrax threats and major street demonstrations over the year, the earthquake clearly freaked out Washington. “It was really scary” a young woman shouted into her cell phone as an ambulance and fire truck screeched by near 14th and H Streets NW., a couple blocks from the White House.  

President Obama was briefed on potential damage to major infrastructure facilities, including  the areas nuclear power plants.  Two nuclear reactors in Louisa County, Viriginia, which is about five miles from the epicenter, were taken off line almost immediately.  Luckily, there was little or no damage to the east coast power grid or other essential infrastructure, including airport runways, rails and roads. 

In Manhattan, a number of office buildings were emptied, and throngs of white-collar workers in the streets were disquietingly reminiscent of September 11--though the mood was concerned but not petrified.

A report on the website of amNewYork , a free newspaper, quoted one of thousands of Twitter dispatches that said it all: “@stephanieekeel of Manhattan tweeted: ‘we felt our whole building shake 270 Lafayette in Soho. Evacuated building via stairs RUNNING. SCARY.’"

At the stock exchanges, the markets dropped on prospects of higher costs to insurers, interrupted commerce—including air travel—and other potential economic damage.  But the dip was short lived as the DJIA ended up over 300 points for a 2.97 percent gain.

The quake measured 5.9 on the Richter scale according to the U.S. Geological Survey and may have been the largest earthquake ever to rock the D.C. and Virginia areas. The epicenter was  40 miles Northwest of Richmond, Va., and 87 miles southwest of Washington, but the quake was felt as far north as Concord, N.H. and as far south as Chapel Hill, N.C.  In Washington the quake emptied every federal agency and national monument, as well as Union Station, a major Amtrak hub, and put all flights on hold at Reagan National Airport, where ceiling tiles fell.

Many federal buildings, including the Pentagon, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Treasury, suffered minor damage including broken pipes and foundation cracks. At the Treasury, “There were a few broken water pipes and wires down, but no structural damage,” said a Secret Service agent patrolling the area.  

The National Cathedral, the tallest building in D.C., has reported parts of the ceiling falling and damage to three of its four pinnacles—the stones at the top of the cathedral’s towers. Public and private schools closed immedidately after the earthquake, while many businesses sent their employees home early. 

Cell phone service was knocked out, as scores of workers and tourists frantically tried to contact loved ones. Others either went out for an extended lunch at sidewalk cafes and hotels, or held court on the street with their coworkers, comparing Twitter feeds and playing Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move” on their mobile devices. Every downtown D.C. Starbucks was packed. 

Downtown Washington is bedecked with  boxy, low-slung architecture, with few office buildings higher than 14 or  15 stories. Yet many of the downtown buildings shook and swayed like skyscrapers for the better part of a minute, with some office dwellers feeling as if their offices might break off and hurtle into space. It wasn’t clear whether the city had suddenly been hit with high winds, an explosion or a rare tremor or earthquake, according to witnesses.  Within minutes of the quake, tens of thousands of office workers and government employees, hotel occupants and tourists had poured into the streets on a warm, sunny afternoon.

Christine Wallace, a freedom of information specialist for the Department of Justice, was sitting in her 11th floor office two blocks from the Treasury, when her building began shaking. “It was very scary,” she said. “The building definitely was shaking. We didn’t know what it was. A bomb or whatever.”

An employee of the Environmental Protection Agency said “I had never felt anything like it—I thought it could have been construction or something.” He said he immediately noticed a crack in the column of the building as he exited.  “Scares me to think what else could be broken.”

President Obama was vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, playing a round of golf, when the earthquake struck, according to CNBC. Police quickly cordoned off the White House and Lafayette Park with yellow police tape. Congress is in an extended summer recess and won’t be back until after Labor Day. Police evacuated the Capitol and House and Senate Office Buildings, while workers assessed the buildings for structural damage.

As the mini-drama played out, with fire engines, ambulances and police vehicles racing up and down the main streets and avenues, business and leisure in the nation’s capital largely ground to a halt. The District of Columbia, home to nearly 600,000 residents and about 1 million workers, fuels a local economy of about $100 billion annually. So while many workers received an unexpected afternoon off, many businessmen and office managers were gnashing their teeth.