WASHINGTON – Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius had to apologize for the “background noise,” as car horns and sirens interrupted her conference call Tuesday on a federal grants competition.
That’s because Sebelius, like much of Washington, was forced out of her office and onto the sidewalk by an earthquake that shook the region early in the afternoon.
The magnitude-5.8 earthquake that was centered 88 miles southwest of the city was the largest to hit Virginia in more than 100 years, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
The earthquake could be felt in 20 states, affecting tens of millions of people and likely causing tens of millions of dollars in damage, said USGS seismologist David Wald. Because the epicenter was in a rural area, the areas affected by the earthquake “dodged a bullet,” he said.
“Had this earthquake been focused in the northeast, to the west or even to the south we likely would’ve seen significant casualties and much greater damage,” Wald said.
In Washington, police evacuated buildings across the city, including the Capitol and other federal offices. The earthquake caused minor damage and injuries throughout the city, according to a spokesman for the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.
“I was in CVS and things started falling off the shelf,” said Leslie Lobos, a D.C. resident. “At first I just thought I knocked something over, but things were just falling. People started screaming. There were definitely people crying.”
People gathered in the city’s parks and on sidewalks and some federal workers were sent home while officials made sure their buildings were safe. Buildings in the Eastern U.S. are not constructed to withstand earthquakes and brick buildings are expected to have suffered the most, USGS seismologists said.
The limestone Washington National Cathedral, which has hosted four presidential funerals, suffered “significant damage” to its central tower, the highest point in the city. Other parts of the cathedral suffered minor damage, including buttresses and three of the pinnacles atop the tower.
The tremors lasted less than a minute, but they slowed Metrorail and Metrobus services – daily transportation for more than a million commuters – for much of the afternoon.
Metrorail cars operated at 15 mph while officials inspected the 106 miles of track for damages, said Metro spokesman Dan Stessel, creating station bottlenecks. At several locations, Metro police limited foot traffic into the stations for up to an hour, Stessel said.
“The worst thing to happen today are the traffic jams,” said Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of the Washington Post and Weil Family Professor of Journalism at the Cronkite School. “It is horrible.”
The brief tremors also commanded hours of national news coverage for what turned out to be minimal damage. But Downie said that’s to be expected.
“Just like here (in Washington) when the dust storm was there (in Phoenix) it was on both the local and national news. It was exotic and amazing,” Downie said.
“Well I think the same thing pertains with earthquakes on the East Coast,” he said.
Stessel said the quake appeared to send much of Washington home early, as Metro traffic swelled through the afternoon. But not everyone took the rest of the day off.
“(We’re) here on the sidewalk, waiting for our building to be secured,” Sebelius said on the conference call, after helping introduce a federal grant competition for preschool education, “and we’d be very happy to take some of your questions.”
Cronkite news reporter Cassondra Strande contributed to this story.
Max Levy is a reporter for Cronkite News