The 5.8-magnitude earthquake that rattled buildings Tuesday disrupted a federal workday full of meetings, phone calls and late lunches and forced workers to flee as ceiling tiles and moldings crumbled and crashed to the ground. Cell phones later delivered automated calls and text messages with further instructions.
Federal employees contacted late Tuesday said their agencies exercised elements of long-practiced evacuation and emergency procedures, though several reported problems with communication systems. Some offices quickly dismissed workers and others waited hours to send people home.
“I was walking paperwork to my boss and felt wobbly,” said Julie Simmons, an Energy Department employee in Germantown. “By the time I arrived to his office he was exiting into the hallway. For a split second, I thought it was a low flying plane. A coworker said it was an earthquake. Shortly after an alarm sounded.”
“We were in a meeting, the shaking started, and at first it felt like an elevator rumbling,” said Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate. “Then it continued, so our immediate next thought was is it a bomb blast, but then it continued and we realized it was an earthquake.”
With hundreds of federal office buildings and campuses across the Washington area located in buildings large, small, short and tall, it would be impossible to implement a uniform, government-wide earthquake evacuation plan. At least a dozen federal facilities – including pre-war and suburban office towers — sustained structural damage and will be closed on Wednesday.
Typically, federal offices in the Washington area take their cues on whether to open from the Office of Personnel Management. But the government’s human resources agency appeared caught off-guard Tuesday, failing to issue recommendations until more than two hours after the quake. Though agencies may use discretion on when to open or close, OPM’s government-wide guidance is used by D.C-area schools, universities and private businesses and impacts the flow of traffic and Metro subway lines. By the time OPM issued its warning, most workers had already gone home.
And they soon hit gridlock and crowds similar to those seen after similar early dismissal instructions during January’s snowstorms.
“I left the Navy Yard a little bit after 3 p.m., and got home about 5:15 p.m.,” Aimee Child, who works at the Washington Navy Yard, said in an e-mail. “Interstate 395 was fine, but getting to 395 from the Yard, then down Route 1 to my home, took forever.”
OPM Director John Berry, who decides when to open or close offices due to natural or man-made disasters, is on vacation this week. In an e-mail, Berry said that before he left he designated his general counsel, Elaine Kaplan, to make D.C.-area operation decisions.
“There will be plenty of time later to determine how we can respond better,” Berry said, declining after several requests to explain why his office took more than two hours to make a decision.
At the Department of Transportation in Southeast Washington, a spokeswoman said workers were given the option to leave early around 2:30 p.m. Workers at the Interior Department, at C St. NW, were allowed to leave after being informed by e-mail and a public address system, a spokesman said.
After evacuating the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, contractor John Gipson said workers sat around in a parking lot waiting for instructions.
“Eventually a security person showed up and shooed everyone away and made an announcement on the PA system that everyone should stay out of the building,” Gipson said.
At an Energy Department office in Germantown, workers didn’t evacuate until 30 minutes after the quake, according to one employee.
“I went to security and the contractor said it was a little tremor and did not indicate a need to leave so I went back to my desk,” said the employee, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution.
A Veterans Health Administration volunteer in Washington reported similar issues. “It might have been a bit more comforting to see that the federal agency in which I’m working take more initiative in terms of communications, and getting the message out about what happened,” said the volunteer, who also asked not to be identified.
Social Security Administration employee Bob Somers said his building had already evacuated once on Tuesday due to a suspicious odor. Another evacuation order “came in just a few minutes after the shaking stopped,” he said.
Child, who works at the Navy Yard, feared the campus’ old, tall, closely situated buildings could cause further danger.
“The Navy Yard needs a better mass communication system,” Child added. “They have loud speakers on some of the buildings (they call the system Big Voice), but when they use it, the sound just echoes around the buildings and gets muddled, so it’s impossible to understand what they’re saying.”
Out of an abundance of caution, building inspections are expected to continue across Washington on Wednesday, with most expected to reopen on Thursday. Inevitably, officials responsible for emergency plans will tweak their procedures and provide workers with updated instructions.
“I can’t blame them for the brief confusion I and other returning staff members experienced because communications were down,” said Termirah Brinkley, a Census Bureau employee in Suitland. “The only way we could have been fully connected is if we all had walkie talkies, which is impossible.”
“Given the rarity of earthquakes here, I don’t think there is much that could be done to prepare people,” said Earl J. Watts, an Interior Department in Arlington. “If you don’t do it regularly and often, everyone forgets, and it’s mostly a nuisance. Still, if a major quake happens there is likely to be problems.”
Interactivity producer Ryan Kellet contributed to this report.
What were you told to do once the earthquake hit? Share your experiences in the comments section below.
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