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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.

{mosads}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. 

Tags Carl Levin Chris Coons Mitch McConnell

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