Tuesday, August 23, 2011, began as any other work day and did not feel like it was going to be a particularly special day. My friend and coworker, Lisa, and I had gone out to the D.C. food trucks to grab lunch and had just finished eating. We were quietly working away at our computers when, out of the blue, we both stopped typing and looked at each other.
My first thought was, “Are they doing construction on the building today?” It felt like there were vibrations below us, building in strength until it felt like the building was shaking from side to side. One of us remarked, “Let’s get out of here, now!” and we took off.
As we raced with our fellow colleagues and other building residents down the stairwell, my head was spinning. My initial thought that the building was undergoing construction briefly gave way to thoughts of, “oh no, we are across from the Capitol and it’s almost the ten year anniversary of September 11,” to, “maybe it was an earthquake…but we don’t have earthquakes in D.C.” As a Christian, I also wondered if the Rapture was happening and we would soon hear the heavenly trumpets sounding their call of Jesus’s return.
Once outside and once my eyes had adjusted to the bright sun, I was amazed at the crowds of people streaming out of the many office buildings. Everyone sort of resembled a line of worker ants filing out of the spaces and into the streets. People were chatting nervously and coming up with different theories about what happened. That is, those who had left their offices without their phones were chatting–those of us who had grabbed our iPhones and Blackberries and so forth were intensely focused on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media to try to figure out what had happened.
Thanks to modern technology, news spread like wildfire. People from New York to North Carolina to Florida took to social media to announce that they were also evacuating. News reporters tweeted that a 5.8 magnitude earthquake had hit the East coast, with the epicenter located at the little town of Mineral, Virginia. It was the first earthquake of that scale since 1897.
There was a collective sigh of relief upon hearing that it had been an earthquake and not a terrorist attack. My friend Kristin, who works in the House of Representatives, said that congressional staffers had assumed the worst. As well, defense officials had reportedly felt the Pentagon tremble and thought that we were getting attacked again.
Phone lines were quickly jammed and I couldn’t get any calls through, so I texted friends and family to let them know I was safe. Leon had evacuated his office building up in Maryland, and I was glad to know that he and other loved ones were safe. I later found out from the news that there were no reports of serious injuries, but that some damage had been done to buildings around D.C. and the National Monument would be closed indefinitely to fix some cracks caused by the tremors.
Needless to say, riding on the Metro did not seem like a great idea since there was talk of aftershocks occurring after the initial quake, so I ended up sticking around downtown D.C. with friends until traffic had cleared. Leon managed to make it down from Maryland to pick me up, and we met up with his friend Tyler (who had just gotten into town for a business conference) to have some dinner. Fittingly, we went to Old Ebbitt Grill, close to the crowds still hovering around the White House to see if anything would happen around there. Everyone inside the restaurant was talking about the earthquake. People were pretty shaken up (no pun intended).
Once traffic finally died down, Leon was able to drive me home to check on my apartment. The building management had warned everyone to check cabinets carefully to see if anything had been broken, and I was anxious to see how my 13th floor apartment had fared. Thankfully, all of my breakable items were fine and the electricity was working.
I stayed up late texting back friends and family, and I felt truly blessed to have people who cared enough to check on me. Granted, the earthquake in D.C. was not nearly as catastrophic as the ones endured by Californians, for example, but it was still a pretty unnerving experience. Being up high in an office building and feeling like the floor is going to give way is a pretty scary feeling.
The earthquake was a blunt reminder that even the center of American political power, Washington, D.C., is not infallible, and neither are its inhabitants. Life can be interrupted or cut short at any moment, with no warning, and it is important to remember that.
Needless to say, I think that everyone in D.C. headed into work on Wednesday morning a little more aware of their own mortality.