Rare 5.9 earthquake shakes up D.C. federal buildings

In the hours after a a rare medium-strength earthquake struck the Washington, D.C., area on Aug, 23, government agencies sought to get information to their employees and to the public while people seeking to get information jammed up cell phone networks and web sites.

The earthquake, which rumbled through at 1:51 p.m., prompted the evacuation of the White House, Pentagon, U.S. Capitol and other federal buildings. The 5.9-magnitude earthquake had its epicenter near Mineral, Va., according to crowdsourced reports published by the U.S. Geological Survey on its Earthquake Hazards Program website. The website invites members of the public to report on events they’ve experienced.

As of 2:00 p.m., there were 612 reports on the page of an earthquake in Virginia. By 2:40 p.m., the number of reports had risen to 2,222.

Hundreds of anecdotal reports on Twitter suggest that the quake was felt along much of the East Coast, and many commercial buildings were evacuated.

According to a report in The Hill newspaper, the White House, Pentagon, Capitol, State Department and Library of Congress were evacuated shortly after the quake.

The Pentagon was reopened to employees in half an hour, according to a report posted on Twitter by @NavyNews. Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency posted a blog with tips for what to do during and after an earthquake. The "during" section isn't too late to be useful -- aftershocks are possible for the next several days.

Police in Richmond, Va., sent a tweet urging people to remain calm but report any injuries or damage to the police via phone or Twitter.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) tweeted that her staff had moved to an emergency location.

Minutes after the quake, federal officials were wondering what had happened.

"Think we just had an earthquake or something in [Crystal City]. All the bldgs shaking," wrote Mary Davie, assistant commissioner of the General Services Administration's Office of Integrated Technology Services.

It was the strongest earthquake to originate in Virginia since 1897, according to a tweet from NASA's Langley, Va., facility.

USGS published a Shake Map showing the spread of the earthquake’s shock waves from its epicenter between Charlottesville and Richmond.

About the Authors

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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