Major Earthquake Felt Across D.C. Region

The largest Virginia earthquake in more than a century shook the Washington, D.C., region at about 1:50 p.m. Tuesday, sending workers into the streets, snarling traffic and tying up wireless networks. Many in the D.C. area were relieved when they learned it wasn't something worse.

Aftershocks followed, including a 4.2-magnitude one felt inside the Beltway. Viewers in Bethesda and Arlington reported feeling that one. Two other aftershocks have been reported: A 2.8-magnitude aftershock at 2:46 p.m. and a 2.2-magnitude aftershock at 3:20 p.m.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the earthquake registered 5.8 in magnitude and took place 3.7 miles below the surface. The quake was 9 miles from Mineral, Va., 90 miles southwest of D.C. It lasted about 30-40 seconds and was felt up and down the East Coast. No larger earthquake has ever hit closer to D.C., News4 meteorologist Doug Kammerer reported.

“This may be the largest earthquake that we know has happened in Virginia,” said Mike Blanpied, of the USGS Earthquake Hazard Program. “There was one of similar size down near Blacksburg in the late 1800s, but the central Virginia seismic area, which does produce earthquakes from time to time, has not, to out knowledge, produced one quite this big, even though it’s a n area of relatively frequent small earthquakes.”

Earthquakes in that seismic area – between Charlottesville and Richmond – is just an example of the fact that this is a continent under stress, and there are faults left over from the geological construction of the East Coast, Blanpied said. It's a reminder that earthquakes can happen pretty much anywhere in the U.S., no matter how rare they are in the D.C. area.

The earthquake was described as a shallow quake, because it occurred on a shallow thrust fault – when cluster of rocks is pushed on top of another cluster of rocks – and because the rocks are very strong, the shaking spreads quickly, seismologist Walter Mooney said. So it was a strong, abrupt shaking rather than the waving earthquakes common on the West Coast.  The ground in the East is older, colder and more intact than in the West, so when one of those rare quakes strike, they rattle an area up to 10 times larger than a similar-sized West Coast temblor.

This earthquake was on an unknown fault, and seismologists say the fault isn't likely to be pinpointed because the surface never ruptured, the AP reported.

More aftershocks are likely in the next couple of days, Kammerer said. Those shouldn't surpass a magnitude of 5.

Aftershocks die off over time, Blanpied said, so they are most likely in the next few days.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency advised people to do the following:

  • Expect aftershocks. These secondary shockwaves are usually less violent than the main quake but can be strong enough to do additional damage to weakened structures and can occur in the first hours, days, weeks, or even months after the quake.
  • Listen to a battery-operated radio or television. Listen for the latest emergency information.
  • Use the telephone only for emergency calls.
  • Open cabinets cautiously. Beware of objects that can fall off shelves.
  • Stay away from damaged areas. Stay away unless your assistance has been specifically requested by police, fire, or relief organizations. Return home only when authorities say it is safe.
  • Be aware of possible tsunamis if you live in coastal areas. These are also known as seismic sea waves (mistakenly called "tidal waves"). When local authorities issue a tsunami warning, assume that a series of dangerous waves is on the way. Stay away from the beach.
  • Help injured or trapped persons. Remember to help your neighbors who may require special assistance such as infants, the elderly, and people with disabilities. Give first aid where appropriate. Do not move seriously injured persons unless they are in immediate danger of further injury. Call for help.
  • Clean up spilled medicines, bleaches, gasoline or other flammable liquids immediately. Leave the area if you smell gas or fumes from other chemicals.
  • Inspect the entire length of chimneys for damage. Unnoticed damage could lead to a fire.
  • Check for gas leaks. If you smell gas or hear blowing or hissing noise, open a window and quickly leave the building. Turn off the gas at the outside main valve if you can and call the gas company from a neighbor's home of call 911. If you turn off the gas for any reason, it must be turned back on by a professional.
  • Look for electrical system damage. If you see sparks or broken or frayed wires, or if you smell hot insulation, turn off the electricity at the main fuse box or circuit breaker. If you have to step in water to get to the fuse box or circuit breaker, call an electrician first for advice.
  • Check for sewage and water lines damage. If you suspect sewage lines are damaged, avoid using the toilets and call a plumber. If water pipes are damaged, contact the water company and avoid using water from the tap. You can obtain safe water by melting ice cubes.

After early inspections, there are no reports of road or bridge damage.  The earthquake extended the evening rush on both ends, as many people left work early because of the quake and many people got home late because of the traffic jams. Some abandoned their cars at work and walked home.

DDOT reported some traffic light outages. People should remember to treat those intersections as four-way stop signs.

Metrorail will remain open, but riders should expect delays as trains will be running slower -- at first 15 mph, and then 30 mph until closing -- as tracks are inspected through the night, officials said. No damage has been reported. Amtrak and MARC also said they would be running slower trains. The Massachusetts Avenue entrance at Union Station was closed but has reopened.

All Metrobus routes are operating with delays due to the traffic light outages and evacuation traffic. All available buses have been put in service and bus drivers' shifts were extended.

Verizon Wireless said it did not experience any damage to its system, but customers may have experienced problems because of a high volume of usage.

"The industry's infrastructure appears to be intact, but because many wireless consumers are using the networks, we are experiencing higher than normal traffic," read a statement from CTIA, the international association for the wireless telecommunications industry. "In these high volume instances, there can be delays. We encourage people to send text messages and emails to contact their loved ones until volume returns to normal."

Ceiling tiles came down at Reagan National Airport, and flights were stopped, but the airport was operating again by 3:30 p.m. All flights are arriving and departing at Dulles International Airport. Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport was quickly checked for damage, and none was found. Flights continued departing and arriving.

The earthquake damaged three of the four pinnacles atop the main tower of the landmark Washington National Cathedral, and there are visible cracks in the church's structure. The pinnacles are the top spires on the cathedral's towers. The tops of the pinnacles -- capstones known as finials -- fell off in Tuesday's quake, littering the surrounding grounds with stones and small chunks of rubble.

A cathedral official said it's not massive damage but it's very serious.

There are also cracks in the flying buttresses at the cathedral's east end, the oldest part of the structure. A statement issued by the cathedral said the buttresses supporting the main, central tower appeared to be sound, and the tower itself was not leaning as a spokesman had reported previously.

A woman visiting the cathedral with her son said the floors were making waves, News4's Tom Sherwood reported. Her son said when they got outside they saw pieces of stone on the ground. The building has been evacuated.

All the monuments on the National Mall were evacuated. The Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial and the Old Post Office Tower were closed temporarily. The Jefferson and Lincoln memorials reopened Tuesday evening and the Old Post Office Tower will reopen Wednesday morning. A secondary inspection of the Washington Monument found cracks.

Parts of the White House, the Pentagon, Homeland Security and the U.S. Capitol were evacuated. Light fixtures shook on the ceiling of the Capitol.

U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Kimberley Schneider said Architect of the Capitol structural engineeers cleared the Capitol Building for re-entry at about 5 p.m. but asked that people who work in offices in the building only re-enter briefly to collect items left behind when they were evacuated. Other congressional office buildings remain closed. The Russell, Hart and Dirksen garages also reopened. The Capitol Visitor Center was deemed safe for re-entry by 5:30 p.m.

At the Pentagon in northern Virginia, a low rumbling built and built to the point that the building was shaking. NBC News's Jim Miklaszewski said his first thought was that the shaking felt like the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

People ran into the corridors of the government's biggest building and as the shaking continued there were shouts of "Evacuate! Evacuate!''

A broken water main at the Pentagon has caused considerable flooding, but that was the only damage reported. The water was shut of but wasn't expected to remain off long.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said he was walking up Capitol Hill when it hit and was concerned "that it was something other than an earthquake."

In addition to the rumbling felt across Virginia, Maryland and the District, tremors were felt as far away as Martha's Vineyard where the president is on vacation, NBC News reported. It was felt on a golf course where Obama was starting a round, the AP reported. There have been reports of tremors felt in 22 states -- as far as Illinois and Georgia -- and Canada.

Earlier today, there were reports of earthquakes in Ohio and parts of New York. A 5.3 magnitude quake was reported in Colorado Tuesday morning.

The quake came a day after an earthquake in Colorado toppled groceries off shelves and caused minor damage to homes in the southern part of the state and in northern New Mexico. No injuries were reported as aftershocks continued Tuesday.

The North Anna nuclear power plant is located close to the epicenter of the quake. Two reactors were shut down at the Dominion Power-operated plant.  The plant declared an "unusual event" -- the lowest stage of the emergency scale. Nuclear plants in six states were reviewed.

News4 meteorologist Doug Kammerer said residents should be ready for aftershocks, though not major ones.

Throughout the area, schools executed earthquake drills.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell said there was significant damage, but in Louisa County, a high school and a middle school sustained significant damage. All polling places for Virginia's primaries remain open. None was closed longer than about 30 minutes. State law prevents McDonnell from extending voting hours, McDonnell said.

In Mineral, a town with one traffic light and just a few businesses, several building sustained damage and many stores' inventory was tossed from shelves, some of it smashed, News4's Jane Watrel reported.

A state of emergency was declared in Culpeper County, and public schools will be closed Wednesday as they are inspected for structural damage. The Red Cross has set up a shelter at the Salem Fire Department.

In the town of Culpeper, Va., 36.4 miles from Mineral, one person was reported injured in a partial building collapse in the 100 block of North East Street and taken to Culpeper Regional Hospital in unknown condition, the town's public information office said.

Three building in the town of Culpeper have been condemned, accoding to the PIO. The Culpeper Adult Detention Center was evacuated for perceived structural damage, and 80 inmates were relocated to other correctional facilities.

Power was cut to 80 businesses and 20 residences in Culpeper as a precaution. 

Maryland state employees returned to the statehouse after an evacuation lasting roughly 30 minutes. Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Gov. Martin O'Malley, said staff in a meeting on the second floor thought something was falling off the building, the Associated Press reported. Several staffers said they initially thought scaffolding around the statehouse dome, which is being repainted, had collapsed.

"We really felt like it was going to come through the ceiling at any second," said O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese.

In Charleston, W.Va., hundreds of workers left the state Capitol building and employees at other downtown office buildings were  asked to leave temporarily.

"The whole building shook," said Jennifer Bundy, a spokeswoman for the state Supreme Court. "You could feel two different shakes. Everybody just kind of came out on their own."

In downtown Baltimore, the quake sent office workers into the streets, where lamp posts swayed slightly as they called family and friends to check in.

"People pouring out of buildings and onto the sidewalks and Into Farragut Park in downtown D.C. ...," tweeted Republican strategist Kevin Madden.

"did you feel earthquake in ny? It started in richmond va!" tweeted Arianna Huffington, president and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post Media Group.

Earthquakes of this magnitude are rare. Earlier this year, a 6.3-magnitude earthquake near the urban Christchurch, New Zealand, caused significant damage. The Virginia quake was in a much more rural area.

More updates as they become available.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
Contact Us