WASHINGTON-The nation's capital is supposed to be quiet in August. This is the month that Congress is in recess and lawmakers are in their home districts meeting constituents (or relaxing on a beach somewhere as far away as they can get from their voters). Speaking of beaches, even President Obama is away from the city on his own vacation. So this was supposed to be a snoozer of a week on Capitol Hill.
But Tuesday afternoon at about 1:51 p.m., Washington, D.C. was anything but quiet thanks to the East Coast's strongest earthquake since 1944. For less than a minute, the 5.8-magnitude quake with an epicenter located only about 84 miles from Washington rattled thousands of workers out of their office buildings. Pouring into the city's streets, everyone seemed to have a dazed and confused look about them.
"Was that just an earthquake?" was a frequent question.
The earthquake hit just as I had wrapped up a lunch inside cavernous Union Station with a staffer for the Heritage Foundation. As I stepped outside, the Capitol Hill sidewalk suddenly shifted up and down like one of those funhouse floors at the state fair. The building above me shook and shifted with a loud rumble. I instinctively covered my head with my hands-not that it would have done much good. My first thought was a bomb had gone off. But the quaking ended before my brain could even comprehend what was happening.
People spilled out of the offices and homes around me. An ambulance driver slowly drove by with his window rolled down, asking with a smile why everyone was clustered on the sidewalks
Showing how fast news travels in the 21st century, an Associated Press news alert announcing the quake appeared on my iPhone while I was still frozen on the spot where I had been when the shaking began. Showing how far 21st century technology still has to go, cell phone service stopped working for me soon after receiving that alert.
But others around me instantly began checking their Twitter accounts where 144 character long descriptions of the quake had already started appearing:
"There was just a 5.8 earthquake in Washington. Obama wanted it to be a 3.4, but the Republicans wanted 5.8, so he compromised."
"Earthquake in DC. Do not panic. A Super Committee will be formed to at some point possibly decide what to do."
Additionally, the running joke since Tuesday has been the posting of earthquake "damage" photos on Facebook profiles.
Post-quake laughter has been an option because authorities thankfully reported no serious injuries or damage. The National Cathedral suffered damage to its central tower and a few of its corner spires. Some ceiling tiles fell at Reagan National Airport. And engineers found a crack near the top of the Washington Monument, which will be closed indefinitely. But White House officials reported that area airports and nuclear facilities reported no major structural problems.
The shaking and subsequent evacuation at the Pentagon led some workers there to recall the chaos in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. But the mammoth building's biggest damage was only a broken water pipe. Federal buildings, including the U.S. Capitol and the White House, were also evacuated while the Smithsonian museums and the city's national monuments promptly closed.
People from Atlanta to Ontario felt Tuesday's quake. A quake of similar strength hit New York in 1944. But the last significant Virginia-centered quake, a 5.9-magnitude one, occurred way back in 1897. A 7.3-magnitude quake that hit the Charleston, S.C., area in 1886 remains the most powerful quake to ever hit the East Coast.
Most people in D.C. decided to call it a work day after the quake. This mass exodus of people headed home led to the most normal of Washington occurrences: massive traffic gridlock.
Sitting in my car, slowly inching my way toward home and praying that no aftershocks would occur while stuck on the bridges crossing over the Potomac River, I began to feel just how blessed we all were this day.
In the aftermath of recent massive earthquakes in Japan and Haiti, Tuesday could have been a lot worse for the East Coast.
What hit us was equal in energy force to nearly eight kilotons of TNT, or about half the power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, at the end of World War II. But the earthquake that wrecked Japan earlier this year released more than 60,000 times the energy as what hit the East Coast on Tuesday.
In other words, we all got a teaspoon taste of how helpless it can feel to be caught in the middle of a natural disaster. Besides being thankful that we were spared a worse calamity, maybe enduring those 45 or so seconds of shaking buildings and wavy sidewalks will inspire us to reach out and offer real help to those still recovering from tragedies of much greater magnitude.
In the meantime, hopefully Wednesday will be a more normal (i.e., quiet) August recess day in D.C.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.