The Washington Post

The Great Washington Earthquake of 2011

Here’s our story (I did rewrite — crazy busy day, friends) on the Kinda Big One that rocked Virginia, DC, Balmer, New York, etc., this afternoon at 1:51 p.m. It wasn’t a disaster but it was ... different. Unnerving is the word that comes to mind.

Excerpt:

A rare, powerful 5.8-magnitude earthquake rattled the eastern third of the United States on Tuesday afternoon, damaging older buildings, shutting down much of the nation’s capital and unnerving tens of millions of people from New England to the Carolinas.

It was not a killer quake, nor even a particularly injurious one. But if it didn’t add up to a natural disaster, it was still a startling geological event, the strongest East Coast tremor in 67 years, and it effectively blew up the workday in Washington.

Any assumption that the region is seismically serene was corrected at 1:51 p.m. when a fault near the small town of Mineral, Va., suddenly ruptured. In Boston or Charleston or Detroit it might have felt like a sudden case of vertigo. Closer to the epicenter it was not so subtle. It began with a shudder, as if a helicopter were landing nearby or perhaps someone had turned on a large piece of machinery. Within a couple of seconds, it grew into a heaving, bucking, no-doubt-about-it earthquake.

It was over in less than a minute. Workers surged out of office buildings, and cellphone networks quickly clogged. The Federal Emergency Management Agency eventually sent out a statement asking the public to switch to e-mail or text messages.

Capstones, known as finials, fell from three spires on Washington National Cathedral, and cracks appeared in the flying buttresses on the older east side. “Please pray for the Cathedral as there has been some damage,” the cathedral said in its official Twitter feed.

An inspection turned up cracks “at the very, very top” of the Washington Monument, said National Park Service spokesman Bill Line. The 555-foot-tall stone obelisk will remain closed and “could be closed for an indefinite period of time.”...

The first warnings of the earthquake may have occurred at the National Zoo, where officials said some animals seemed to feel it coming before people did. The red ruffed lemurs began “alarm calling” a full 15 minutes before the quake hit, zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson said. In the Great Ape House, Iris, an orangutan, let out a guttural holler 10 seconds before keepers felt the quake. The flamingos huddled together in the water seconds before people felt the rumbling. The rheas got excited. And the hooded mergansers — a kind of duck — dashed for the safety of the water.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."

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