A rare, powerful 5.8-magnitude earthquake rattled the eastern third of the United States on Tuesday afternoon, damaging older buildings, shutting down much of the nation’s capital and unnerving tens of millions of people from New England to the Carolinas.
It was not a killer quake, nor even a particularly injurious one. But if it didn’t add up to a natural disaster, it was still a startling geological event, the strongest East Coast tremor in 67 years, and it effectively blew up the workday in Washington.
Any assumption that the region is seismically serene was corrected at 1:51 p.m. when a fault near the small town of Mineral, Va., suddenly ruptured. In Boston or Charleston or Detroit it might have felt like a sudden case of vertigo. Closer to the epicenter it was not so subtle. It began with a shudder, as if a helicopter were landing nearby or perhaps someone had turned on a large piece of machinery. Within a couple of seconds, it grew into a heaving, bucking, no-doubt-about-it earthquake.
It was over in less than a minute. Workers surged out of office buildings, and cellphone networks quickly clogged. The Federal Emergency Management Agency eventually sent out a statement asking the public to switch to e-mail or text messages.
Capstones, known as finials, fell from three spires on Washington National Cathedral, and cracks appeared in the flying buttresses on the older east side. “Please pray for the Cathedral as there has been some damage,” the cathedral said in its official Twitter feed.
An inspection turned up cracks “at the very, very top” of the Washington Monument, said National Park Service spokesman Bill Line. The 555-foot-tall stone obelisk will remain closed and “could be closed for an indefinite period of time.”
More than 500 people were displaced in Prince George’s County as authorities condemned and evacuated two high-rise apartment buildings.
The Old Soldiers’ Home had structural damage, as did the Ecuadoran Embassy. The White House and the Capitol were evacuated, as were countless Washington area office buildings. Georgetown University, the Smithsonian museums and D.C. federal courts closed.
On Tuesday evening, federal and local officials were still scrutinizing some public buildings and trying to decide whether and when to reopen.
The first warnings of the earthquake may have occurred at the National Zoo, where officials said some animals seemed to feel it coming before people did. The red ruffed lemurs began “alarm calling” a full 15 minutes before the quake hit, zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson said. In the Great Ape House, Iris, an orangutan, let out a guttural holler 10 seconds before keepers felt the quake. The flamingos huddled together in the water seconds before people felt the rumbling. The rheas got excited. And the hooded mergansers — a kind of duck — dashed for the safety of the water.
For people, it was a lovely, sparkling day for an emergency evacuation. Much of the capital’s workforce had gathered on sidewalks by 2 p.m. The federal government later urged agencies to send non-emergency workers home.
The early evening commute degenerated into gridlock, with traffic lights out on some major streets. Metro slowed trains to 15 mph while inspecting for damage. Train service in the Northeast corridor ground to a halt temporarily while engineers examined the tracks.
The two Dominion nuclear plants in North Anna, Va., 10 miles from the epicenter, shut down automatically when the quake hit. They lost power from the grid and switched to four diesel generators, according to a spokesman at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Bill Hall, spokesman for Dominion, said: “I’m in headquarters in Richmond, which is right next to a train track. I thought, ‘That train is going by awfully fast,’ and I looked and there was no train.”
Melvin Robinson Jr. of Fort Washington said he thought the earthquake was the latest gimmick from Hollywood. He was watching the new “Spy Kids” movie in 4-D at a theater on Route 1 in Alexandria with his children Camille, 11, and Melvin III, 10, when the room began shaking violently.
“We were watching the movie, and the chairs in the entire row began to shake left to right. We thought it was the special effects,” Robinson said. Someone then came on an intercom and told the moviegoers to evacuate.
The quake struck near the tail end of the second day of school for tens of thousands of Washington area students. A few minor injuries were reported in the District and Prince George’s. There was damage to some schools in both jurisdictions, as well as in Fairfax County, where the school year has not begun. Prince George’s officials announced late Tuesday that schools would be closed Wednesday to allow more time for inspections. Roosevelt and School Without Walls high schools in the District will be closed Wednesday because of damage.