Capital city shakes after 5.8 quake rocks Eastern Seaboard

A 5.8-magnitude earthquake rattled Washington on Tuesday afternoon — causing the evacuation of government buildings, cellphone service outages, traffic gridlock and delays in public transportation.

The White House, Capitol complex, Pentagon, State Department and other government buildings were evacuated shortly after the earthquake struck at 1:51 p.m.

White House staffers were allowed back inside a few hours later, but the Capitol and its surrounding offices were closed until inspectors completed a damage assessment.

ADVERTISEMENT
Sgt. Kimberly Schneider, a U.S. Capitol Police spokeswoman, said late Tuesday afternoon that the Capitol had been inspected by structural engineers and was ready for re-entry, but urged staffers to limit their time in the building.

Persons with offices in the Capitol Building will be permitted entry to retrieve personal items and to secure their workspaces, she said in a news release. Building inspectors are continuing to work, and the U.S. Capitol Police is requesting that people limit time in the building to an absolute minimum.

She told The Hill earlier in the day that there were no reports of injuries or serious damage to buildings.


A spokesman for Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) tweeted that Wednesday would be a “normal working day at the Capitol.”

Schneider said the earthquake did not cause any communication problems for emergency response personnel.

“We have been able to communicate freely, give orders and freely share information,” she said.

The rare East Coast temblor sent hundreds into the streets. A leadership staffer working on the House side of the Capitol building said, “it was scary as hell, everything was violently shaking.”

Few lawmakers were in the Capitol, however, as Congress is in its August recess.

A 2 p.m. teleconference with Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) was scrubbed about 10 minutes after the quake because his staff had to abide by the evacuation orders for the Capitol. Levin has been leading a small group of senators on a multiday tour of Afghanistan, where they have been meeting with U.S. commanders.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) was in the Capitol when the quake struck. He joined everyone else in evacuating the building, then “checked on his staff,” a member of his team said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) held a short pro-forma session of the Senate at the Postal Square Building because of safety issues at the Capitol.

Republicans have demanded that Senate Democrats hold periodic pro-forma sessions of the upper chamber to block President Obama from making recess appointments.

Obama is vacationing on Marthas Vineyard and was not in Washington when the quake hit. The earthquake was felt there, according to a White House pool report. A later pool report said that the president, who was just beginning a round of golf when the earthquake occurred, did not feel the tremor.

The White House issued a news release saying Obama held a conference call with officials to discuss the earthquake and will receive regular updates on the situation.

Vice President Biden is on a tour of Asia, where his stop in Japan on Tuesday included visits to sites damaged by the earthquake and tsunami that occurred there earlier this year.

Federal workers were given the option of leaving work early, and several government buildings remained closed so they could be checked for structural damage. The all-clear signal was eventually given at the Pentagon, where workers returned to their offices.

The earthquakes epicenter was 87 miles south of Washington, near Mineral, Va., according to the U.S. Geological Survey, which noted it was the states worst earthquake since 1897. The quake was initially reported as having a magnitude of 5.8, upgraded to 5.9 and then downgraded back to 5.8.

The shockwaves were felt up and down the East Coast, all the way up to New York City and down to North Carolina.

There are no initial reports of major damage or fatalities.

“Though there are no early reports of major damage or requests for assistance at this time, preliminary damage assessments are currently taking place in all affected states and we will continue to work closely with their emergency management officials,” Rachel Racusen, a spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said in a news release.

There were initial reports that the Washington Monument was tilting, but the U.S. Park Police surveyed the monuments in Washington by helicopter and found no serious damage.

A subsequent inspection by the National Park Service, however, detected cracks at the top of the Washington Monument.

The NPS announced late Tuesday that the Washington Monument and Jefferson and Lincoln memorials would be temporarily closed so the structures could be evaulated.

Three pinnacles on the National Cathedral also broke, according to Washington Business Journal.

Some of FEMAs offices in Washington were evacuated.

“We were out on the streets while the tour buses were driving by and waving at us,” a staffer told The Hill.

The earthquake did shut down some cellphone service. Text messaging and mobile data were available, and Twitter quickly became a popular method for checking in after the quake.

When asked about the availability of cell service in the Washington area immediately following the quake, a Verizon spokesman replied via email: “Obviously, call volume is extremely high.”

Landlines appeared to be functional.

FEMA urged people to limit cellphone use.

“Due to overload of cellphone usage, there are reports of cellphone congestion,” Racusen said. “We request that members of the public use email or text messages if possible to communicate for the next few hours, except in cases of emergency, so that emergency officials can continue to receive and respond to urgent calls.”

Subway trains in Washington were slowed to 15 miles per hour in the wake of the quake, officials said. The Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority said it would not stop running trains in the D.C. metro area.

The agency said no train passengers were injured when the earthquake hit, and it was checking rails throughout the system.

Riders were warned to expect significant delays until trains resumed running at full speed.

Amtrak said on its Twitter page that service between Baltimore and Washington was disrupted “with speed restrictions.”

Meanwhile, Twitter was filled with complaints about the traffic situation in Washington, with several comparing it to the January snowstorm that caused hours of traffic congestion.

The last earthquake in the Washington area took place in 2010 and registered 3.6. It was centered in Rockville, Md.

-- Daniel Strauss, Alexander Bolton, John T. Bennett, Brendan Sasso, Jordy Yager, Keith Laing, Josiah Ryan, Justin Sink, Alicia M. Cohn, Emily Goodin, Vicki Needham, Mike Lillis and Gautham Nagesh contributed.

This story was first posted at 2:04 p.m. on Aug. 23 and last updated at 7 a.m. on Aug. 24. 

More in In The Know

Obama looks like 'The Rock?' President sees 'resemblance'

Read more »