5.8 earthquake rocks D.C. and our home

23 August 2011

A rare earthquake shakes the D.C. region and much of the East Coast at 13.51 EDT, causing mostly minor damage and giving me a good scare.

The most significant damage in our apartment was sustained by our Chinese terra-cotta warrior, but we figure the experience just made him more authentic.
The most significant damage in our apartment was sustained by our Chinese terra-cotta warrior, but we figure the experience just made him more authentic.

It was a warm, sunny Tuesday—a perfect summer day. Since Susan was at new-teacher orientation in New York City, I was working from home so I could look after Fiona. Fiona was taking a nap in her crib, which was in our bedroom at the time.

As I was sitting at our dining-room table, working on a laptop, I heard a rumbling noise. It seemed a bit unusual, but nothing too extraordinary. Dorchester House, the apartment building we lived in at the time, had been undergoing renovation almost nonstop the entire time we had lived there, and I was used to construction sounds making their way to our apartment in the middle of the day.

But this one got louder and louder. Then, suddenly, the walls of our apartment started shaking. I’ll admit: it scared me. I had no idea what it was. Assuming that the construction work was the cause of whatever was happening to our apartment building, I figured I needed to get out as fast as possible. I went into our bedroom, grabbed Fiona from her crib, and ran out of our apartment, barefoot.

As I was quickly walking/running down the corridor, the building shook again. (Interestingly, both times I only saw the shaking; I didn’t really feel it.) I was scared enough that I actually let out an audible yell. I ran to the stairway at the core of the building, because I figured, rightly or wrongly, that if there really was a major problem with the building the core would be the safest place to be.

In the stairway we were joined by other residents, which wasn’t surprising: I figured other people in the building must have felt what I felt. But I still didn’t think it had been an earthquake.

Other effects were minor, such as this frame frame that fell on top of Dustin’s Schloss Neuschwanstein.
Other effects were minor, such as this frame frame that fell on top of Dustin’s Schloss Neuschwanstein.

It was only once Fiona and I got to the street that I began to realize what actually happened. People were pouring out of buildings all over the neighborhood. And there I was without shoes, a wallet, keys, or a phone.

Alone was the last thing I wanted to be right then, so I walked a few blocks to an apartment building on Columbia Road NW, where friends from our ward lived. (She was the Relief Society president; he was an instructor in the elders quorum and our home teacher.) I found them in their lobby. Chatting with them and confirming that, yes, it was an earthquake calmed my nerves.

(I know: it seems strange that learning that an earthquake just occurred would calm me down. But when you go from thinking that your apartment building is about to collapse to realizing it was just an earthquake, it’s sort of soothing.)

I then carried Fiona back home. Since I didn’t have my keys, I stopped by the front desk in our apartment building to get a spare set. Embarrassingly, it was the second time that day that I thought I had locked myself out.

When I got to our corridor, I could look all the way down to our front door, which was the last one and looked lengthwise down the hallway rather than across to the opposite wall like the other front doors did. It was wide open. That’s how quickly I left: not only did I not bring shoes, my wallet, keys, or a phone, but I had left the front door wide open.

I sent Susan a text message to let her know that we had just had an earthquake. (Never thought I would be able to send her a text message like that.) As it turns out, she felt it, too, but not quite like we had in D.C.

That was the second text message I had sent her that day. That morning Fiona knocked over the floor lamp in our dining room and caused the compact fluorescent light bulb in it to shatter. (CFLs, because of the tiny amount of mercury vapor they contain, have to be cleaned up a special way.) My text message began, “First disaster of the day ….” Little did I know that there would end up being a second disaster that day.

This was the largest earthquake in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains since a 5.8-magnitude temblor in 1944 on the New York-Ontario border and an 1897 quake with an estimated magnitude of 5.8 or 5.9 quake in Giles County, Virginia.

In Louisa County, Virginia, 38 miles (61 kilometers) northwest of Richmond and 5 miles (8 kilometers) south-southwest of Mineral

No fatalities; only minor injuries reported

Estimated $200–300 million; minor damage widespread

Social media & the Internet
Twitter users in cities such as New York and Boston reported reading tweets about the quake from users in Washington, D.C., and Richmond 15 to 30 seconds before feeling the temblor itself; Wikipedia had an article dedicated to the earthquake by 14.03 EDT, 12 minutes after the event, and it was mentioned in two other Wikipedia articles even earlier

Apparently, one natural disaster in a week wasn’t enough …

The Saturday after the earthquake, 27 August, hurricane Irene moved past Washington, D.C., after making landfall over the Outer Banks that morning. Irene mostly dumped rain on the D.C. area, though it caused significant damage elsewhere and 56 fatalities as it churned its way from the Caribbean and up North America’s east coast. We could see some of Irene’s receding floodwaters as we rode the train from Washington to New York in our move on 1 September.

This article appeared on pages 8–9 of Issue 4 | October 2011.

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