How I Spent My Earthquake

It may be a testament to my ability to roll with the punches, or proof that I clearly can’t identify with what’s all around me, but I didn’t feel the 5.8 magnitude earthquake that shook Washington D.C. this afternoon at all.

I did know something was up when I saw a guy sprint from a government building and then look over his shoulder when he was deep in the parking lot as if to wonder: “Is Godzilla still gaining on me?”

Behind him were dozens of others running quickly from the building in all directions, as if there had been a bomb or a mad shooter. There was neither. And because the earthquake did not come with a sound (at least outdoors) it seemed the sound was off on this potential disaster movie.

Suddenly it was clear, from across the Washington Mall, that hundreds of people were evacuating from just about every building on the green – natural history museums, bureaucracies, places of government work.

Normally, this would be a time when there would be few government workers on hand, awaiting the return of fall, Congress and the President – all currently on vacation.

But you could see there were a lot of them. And they were wondering, in this city-wide fire drill, what the heck was going on.

“Earthquake,” a parks official shrugged, a little too casually. As if to say, just weeks before the 10th anniversary of 9/11 that caused a similar run-for-your-life atmosphere outside the Capitol and other buildings, there were at least no terrorists this time.

Still, the police were adamant to clear the broad field on which the Washington Monument sits, as if it were to topple at any minute. Mounted police, which I had never noticed at all on the mall, were suddenly in full gallop.

And out of nowhere came a helicopter, headed directly to the monument as if to save it – or, better yet, tourists trapped at the top. It was neither. The swirling helicopter, which was startling to see this close to the monument, swirled around the obelisk, round and round, so close I thought its blade would touch brick.

It was obviously checking for structural damage. But like every monument on the mall – including the new one we were out to see, the Martin Luther King Memorial that just opened Monday – none were reported damaged.

This didn’t stop a rumor from starting that the Washington Monument had tilted as a result of a quake – a story someone half a world away from the thing probably surmised or simply made up. That didn’t stop others from repeating the rumors – or the ever-reliable Fox News from reporting it live. Though the Parks Commission were adamant that the monument was never tilting, it was reported late in the day that some bricks had come loose at the top of the obelisk and the attraction would be closed until it’s repaired.

There had been actual damage, too, over at the National Cathedral, where one of the spires on the main tower toppled, so it was half the size of others. At a neighborhood church in Capitol Hill, St. Peter’s, was blocked off by police tape late in the afternoon, with some impediments having fallen on the building’s entryway stairs as well.

It was pretty surprising since it was on my regular Second Street route.

Suddenly, I thought: Was there more damage citywide than I imagined? Were those heaving bricks in the park walkway ahead caused by the earth’s violent movement as well? (No, probably not, I concluded).

I made these observations after making an exhausting walk from downtown and back to capitol hill, abandoning the way overcrowded Metro after a couple of claustrophobic stops.

That Metro trains were running at all was, I guess, a miracle, since I learned later that Amtrak (and all of Union Station) was closed. But they were slow to come, and when they did, the swelling number of riders tried to squeeze into trains that were already full, being shoved by those behind them who would never fit in.

Across the city, aboveground at least, there had been that feeling of people putting their guard down a little and bonding together, sharing their stories and our common experience.

Everybody was on a cell phone it seemed (though they’re probably always on their phones and I never noticed). Service was seriously interrupted and some people were just crestfallen at what they’d do without the connection.

Lots of stories could be overheard on the cells that got through – most of them along the lines that everybody had to clear out of the building, they had to leave without the keys (or wallet), it was the weirdest thing, a day they’d never forget.

Once again Twitter proved a good way to share information quickly. I was able to inform others near the monument that it was a 5.8 and was felt all the way up to Toronto. Luckily, there were no reports of massive damage or death.

One woman near the Verizon Center used the event as a way to evangelize, yelling to the captive drivers in the stuck traffic that “God let you have another chance!”

Yes, and here they were, wasting it in traffic.

Californians of course scoffed all day at what seemed to them a daily occurrence out there.  But in a part of the country where an earthquake this strong hasn’t been logged since 1897, it was a moment of alert at a time of terror.

But did it have to happen the first week I moved to town?

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