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The disaster that wasn’t: Memories of the D.C. region’s 2011 earthquake

A magnitude 5.8 earthquake struck the East Coast on August 28, 2011. The earthquake caused millions of dollars in damage. Here's what happened that day. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)
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When a rare 5.8-magnitude earthquake struck the East Coast five years ago today, some ran for their lives and streamed into the streets. Some shrugged, some left work early, and some created memes that made light of what seemed a not-very-disastrous disaster.

Meanwhile, others began tabulating a repair bill that would run into the tens of millions of dollars.

Aug. 23, 2011, was not a day that lives in infamy. Few were injured. No one died. But while the earthquake doesn’t haunt the memories of Washingtonians, its aftershocks are still felt in the region.

“Never once did I think ‘terrorist’ but innately knew it was an earthquake,” Jerry A. McCoy, a librarian at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, wrote in an email. “I also knew that the library’s architect … didn’t design his buildings to be earthquake-proof and had visions of the library pancaking. I ran for the stairwell and was out within seconds.”

Fears of a Sept. 11 repeat were unfounded, but parts of D.C. were left scarred. Though some windows and walls cracked, few structures were affected as much as the Washington National Cathedral, which is staring down a $34 million repair bill.

5.8-magnitude Virginia earthquake shakes East Coast, rattles residents

“We anticipate it could take another 10 years,” cathedral spokesman Kevin Eckstrom said. “If somebody would give us a check for $22 million tomorrow, we could probably have the work wrapped up in three years.”

As its website’s earthquake section recounts, buttresses cracked, stonework shattered and angels fell to Earth. The house of worship was closed for four months after the quake, and 87 percent of the exterior still needs repair. 

“People either assume that we fixed everything … or don’t even know we were damaged at all,” Eckstrom said. “The further away from the earthquake we get, the harder it is to remind people of what happened and that work still needs to be done.” (The cathedral’s cafe will be selling “quake shakes” on Tuesday to raise money.)

Across town, the Washington Monument was closed for almost three years after the earthquake. Cracks opened. Water got in. The structure’s internal humidity increased. The elevator was compromised. Even for a building begun before the Civil War, it was a singular disaster.

See the extent of damage and how it was fixed

“Certainly right now, we look at it as before the earthquake, after the earthquake,” National Park Service spokesman Mike Litterst said. “It’s in many ways completely without precedent.”

Litterst said the earthquake was “more impactful” than was initially believed and thought the recent spate of monument closures was connected.

In this newly released footage from the National Park Service, tourists run down the steps of the Washington Monument as debris falls from the ceiling the moment the earthquake hits. (No audio) (Video: The Washington Post)

“We’re seeing more closures and seeing them last for a little bit longer,” he said. “It’s a couple days here and there as opposed to just an afternoon.”

But while these famed structures struggled, so did the rural town where the quake — felt from New England to the Carolinas — originated: Mineral, Va.

Pam Harlowe, mayor of the 500-person town in central Virginia, was sitting in her house writing “thank you” notes when the quake struck, taking the town’s high school with it.

“It was a lot of stress, but once it was over and we knew what was going on, then it was just a lot of get together and see who needed help,” she said. The high school has since been rebuilt.

As officials surveyed the damage, geologists scratched their chins. What had caused a quake in a tectonic scene previously considered snoozeworthy?

The Post’s front page from five years ago

No one is sure, but a lot of people are digging into it.

“There’s a small army of geologists trying to understand the geology in central Virginia deep below the mantle,” said Chuck Bailey, a geologist at the College of William & Mary.

Bailey said scientists have learned a lot about the “crustal structure” of the state since the quake, concluding that relatively small quakes can still cause a lot of damage.

Why a 2011 earthquake in Virginia damaged the Washington Monument

But what had caused the temblor? Other than one certainty — “It is not fracking,” Bailey said — scientists still don’t know. He noted that he was in his first faculty meeting as the chair of William & Mary’s geology department when the quake struck.

As residents straightened picture frames and returned books that had fallen from shelves, the earthquake offered opportunities for humor as well as scientific inquiry. This was, after all, nothing like the catastrophes that have struck elsewhere — as one popular meme noted:

Though Californians might have shaken their heads, some D.C. residents took the chance to engage in a bit of disaster fetishism. John Davis, an employee at the now-closed Video Americain in Takoma Park during the 9/11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the Virginia earthquake, said customers would soon after rent natural-disaster-themed films.

“It was strange phenomenon that would occur at the video store anytime something horrible happened in reality,” said Davis, who recommended 1974’s “Earthquake” starring Charlton Heston that fateful day. “It was how they could process.”

Most of all, D.C. was happy to have been spared the worst. Even the little town at the quake’s epicenter has moved on.

“Our catastrophe does not even rate with some of the things going on now,” Harlowe said. “It’s like a scratch, not even a cut.”

Read more:

‘Earthquake!’: The first moments of the 2011 Virginia temblor on social media

Remembering the 2011 Virginia earthquake that rocked the Eastern U.S.