Earthquake shakes up D.C. office workers’ orderly routines

August 23, 2011

Shaking led to confusion. Confusion led to anxiety. Anxiety led to evacuating. And then evacuating led to milling.

The earthquake that struck Washington on Tuesday shook the city’s carefully constructed rhythms. There was a looseness. A jangled quality. People who normally pass each other silently in the office stood together gossiping in the sun.

There was a sense of getting away with something, wandering outside in the middle of the day, past lunchtime, contemplating a cocktail, waiting for someone to tell you what to do, or not.

And mothers texted children. Husbands called wives. A 5.8-magnitude earthquake, and no lives were lost. People had gotten away with something.

“It kind of builds a sense of community, to all experience something beyond your control,” says Marie Brill, who works at a nonprofit organization on K Street NW. She called her husband and children immediately after the earthquake to make sure they were all right. “It gives you a moment to feel really, really lucky.”

Brill sat on the grass with a colleague at McPherson Square, which was packed with unhurried evacuees from the surrounding buildings. One smartly dressed woman carried a neon disaster-preparedness kit and connected with someone back home: “Love you. Bye bye. Kiss the cat for me, okay?” On the northern corner, Jim Shuff stood under a cluster of trees with a cluster of his co-workers. “I don’t feel like going back to work is a priority now,” he said. “We could be a bit traumatized.”

“We’re actually kind of enjoying it,” said his colleague Lisa Smith.

Another co-worker told the group that she was heading back to work.

“Are you going to come back inside?” she asked.

“In a minute,” Smith said.

Flouting work in Washington is unusual. People take pride in not seeing the sun for days, for working through lunch, for BlackBerry addiction. For a few minutes Tuesday, much of that went away. Twitter feeds stopped flowing. E-mail went down. Cellphones lost their bars.

Bars found their patrons.

“I’m like, ‘Everyone, suck it up and suck it down,’ ” said Chris Houk, a manager at the downtown bar and restaurant Lincoln, where happy hour was an hour-and-a-half early and a table of lawyers had just ordered the “Emancipation Punch Bowl.”

“I’m from California,” he said. “Over there, we roll over and go back to sleep when this kind of quake hits.”

People from California reminded everyone that they were from California.

“It felt like it was a rolling one,” said Jenna Weisbord, a Los Angeles native who works at the International Franchise Association at 15th and K streets NW. She offered guidance to her novice colleagues.

“I learned about the triangle of life!” her co-worker Lynette Darby said, referring to a theory about how to survive an earthquake.

This being Washington, some people found a way to work — they just had to go alfresco.

“We’ve been running staff meetings,” said Fred Hochberg, president of the government’s Export-Import Bank, who received a briefing about solar panels from the head of his renewable energy department at Lafayette Square.

Across the park, administration officials and first residence employees kept to their cliques as they waited to reenter the White House. A group of press office staffers stood under a tree. White House plumbers kicked back under another. White House cooks in white coats stood alone on a patch of grass, while some junior staffers sat in a circle, looking like an outdoor freshman English seminar.

For all of the damage the earthquake caused, it also pushed people out of their offices and then their buildings and then into the streets, where, for a brief time, they waited together.

“People started coming over,” Devorah Lewis, a cafeteria worker in the Veterans Affairs basement, said of the people she usually knows only as lunch orders. On Tuesday, she said, “I got to talk to some of them.”

Staff writer Emily Wax contributed to this report.

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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