Letter From DC: Earthquake Special - Shake, Rattle and Roll

By , Columnist

5.8 on the Richter Scale, the seismologists informed us about the earthquake centered in Mineral, VA that shuddered the nation’s capital Tuesday. From the reaction of the city, the complete collapse of the mobile phone system, and the carmageddon traffic, the metropolitan region of Washington, D.C. has once again demonstrated its absolute inability to deal with any type of emergency.

Virginia earthquake map.jpg

To make matters even more delicious, we’ve got a decent chance of getting plowed by Hurricane Irene this weekend. 

DC’s reaction to the quake was ripe for mockery from our left coast friends accustomed to the ground inexplicably undulating underneath them.  “East Coasters….5.(8)? You’ll be fine. Change your shorts and get back to work,” Kim Suther Facebooked.

In typical New York City fashion, the story was all about them.  All of the national news broadcasts led with what it felt like in Gotham, where it registered as little more than a series of construction pile drives or the A train rattling under the streets.  30 Rock was then gracious enough to check in on their neighbors to the south.  Then again, it’s not like Washingtonians are thinking of Richmond and Charlottesville… 

Not that the natives here didn’t take it in stride.  Yesterday’s very unsettling event brought out the best in some of our residents.  “Earthquake made me spill my tea.  I’m available for interviews,” tweeted Kimbiz Lavasany from the east side of the Capitol Hill neighborhood.  It worked.  Lavasany got picked up by Time as one of the top 15 tweets on the event.  

It was an event for those uninitiated into the phenomena.  Around 1:50pm there was a 15 second shudder that instinct informed was either a Metro train underneath the sidewalk, kids jumping up and down on their second day of school on the floor above, or one of the numerous helicopters that ferry VIPs flying a little to low.

DC earthquake the masses.jpg

Then it got serious and that eerie panic of lost control set in.  Depending on where you were, it felt like playing chicken on a rope bridge or you were trying to balance on top of a jello mold.  Sound was strangely loud and silent at the same time. 

Perhaps most disconcerting, time seemed to slow down and speed up simultaneously.  What was recorded at around 30 seconds has been differentially recalled by those who experienced it as ranging from 10 seconds to 3 minutes.

The September 11th-inluenced psyche of Washington contributed to the surrealism.  Tuesday was what is sometimes referred to as “9/11 Weather”: low 80’s, low humidity and nary a cloud in the sky.  The first ten minutes after folks teemed out of their offices into confused bedlam was a movie we’ve all seen before in D.C.  After all, an earthquake would be the last on the list of explanations. 

Although there were no reports of flat screens crashing from the walls, there were some structural casualties.  The historic town of Culpepper, VA, was particularly hard hit with its pre-Civil War era brick buildings ill-equipped to take the shake.

DC earthquake national cathedral.jpgIn D.C., capstones fell from three spires at the majestic National Cathedral and cracks appeared in the flying buttresses on its original east side.  The Embassy of Ecuador sustained camera-worthy damage.  Ceiling tiles fell from the Capitol’s Rotunda. 

DC earthquake Washington Monument.jpgThe Washington Monument will be closed indefinitely after cracks were discovered at the top of the 555-foot-tall obelisk made of Alabama and Connecticut granite.  The rumors of its leaning a la the Tower of Pisa have since been discounted.

Thankfully, injuries were at a minimum and minor, caused more by the panic than any substantive impact from the episode. 

Government and emergency officials, however, need to -- again -- re-evaluate their contingencies.  In a city that has been planning and preparing for the worst for 10 years, the response was woefully inadequate.

Everyone was sent home and told to evacuate their buildings. With Metro and commuter trains running at a 15mph maximum rate in concern of buckled rails, platforms were dangerously crowded with no official presence. Downtown was a literal parking lot, three and four hours after the event. Traffic throughout the region came to a standstill, in August when many are still on holiday, on a perfect day with no weather issues.  Mobile service collapsed because everyone went voice rather than text and e-mail. 

DC Schools, opened for their second day, had little or no guidance from leadership.  Apparently the DCPS Administration is able to all-text its teachers to insure that everyone’s AC is working, but unable to all-text its personnel during an emergency.

The region has experienced a constant dress-rehearsal for the potential catastrophic event we have constantly been warned about since 9/11.  But once again we’re reminded: if something really goes down, we’re toast. 

“So, in the 9 years and 363 days that I have lived in D.C, I’ve survived a terrorist attack, an anthrax scare, a crazy random sniper, a hurricane, a record setting snowstorm in ’03, smowmageddon in ’09, two inaugurations (one of which was legendary), two of the three hottest months ever recorded here, and now an earthquake, with another hurricane set to arrive Saturday.  Gotta love this town,” Rick Edwards threw up on Facebook.

Hello Irene.  We’re ready for you, but not really ready for you.

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Marc Osgoode Smith has covered – and participated in - Washington DC policy circles for more than two decades as a journalist covering media and as an association and think tank executive. Smith now enjoys his role as a “cultural observer” of DC Politics and the people that engage in them.

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