MINERAL, Va. — Office buildings, schools and iconic American landmarks were being inspected Wednesday for possible structural flaws caused by a rare East Coast earthquake while those near the epicenter nervously waited out aftershocks.
Public schools and a handful of federal government buildings in Washington remained closed for further assessment, and engineers were taking a closer look at cracks in the Washington Monument and broken capstones at the National Cathedral. Some residents of D.C. suburbs were staying in shelters because of structural concerns at their apartment buildings.
Farther south, Tuesday’s 5.8-magnitude quake also shattered windows and wrecked buildings near its Virginia epicenter. There were no known deaths or serious injuries.
The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said the quake serves as a reminder for residents to be prepared.
“We talk about hurricanes this time of year, but we forget that A: earthquakes don’t have a season and B: they are not just a western hazard,” FEMA administrator Craig Fugate said in an interview Wednesday on ABC’s Good Morning America.
In North Carolina, officials were preparing for another potential disaster by inspecting an aging bridge that will be a key evacuation route for people leaving the coast ahead of Hurricane Irene, expected to approach over the weekend. Bridge inspectors on site at the Bonner Bridge saw no visual problems from the quake.
When the quake struck, many feared terrorism in New York and Washington — places where nerves are raw as the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks approaches. The tremblor sent many pouring from high-rises like the Empire State Building.
“I ran down all 60 flights,” accounting office worker Caitlin Trupiano said. “I wasn’t waiting for the elevator.”
Chris Kardian, working in his garage in suburban Richmond, Va., not far from the epicenter, opted for the more prosaic and plausible: He blamed the shaking on two of his children in the overhead playroom.
“I just thought they were running around and being really loud,” he said. “After about 15 seconds, it didn’t stop and I thought, ‘I don’t have that many kids in the house!”’
The most powerful earthquake to strike the East Coast in 67 years shook buildings and jarred as many as 12 million people. The U.S. Geological Survey said it was centered 40 miles northwest of Richmond in Mineral, and it has produced at least four aftershocks ranging in magnitude from 2.2. to 4.2.
The U.S. Park Service evacuated and closed all monuments and memorials along the National Mall. The Pentagon, the White House, the Capitol and federal agencies in and around Washington were evacuated. Roads out of the city were clogged with commuters headed home.
At the majestic Washington National Cathedral, at least three of the four top stones on the central tower fell off, and cracks appeared in the flying buttresses at the cathedral’s east end, the oldest part of the structure. The top of the Washington Monument has a crack.
Ceiling tiles fell to the floor at Reagan National Airport. The gothic-style Smithsonian Castle, built in 1857, had minor cracks and broken glass. And vigorous shaking left a crack and hole in the ceiling at historic Union Station when a chunk of plaster fell near the main entrance.
Maintenance workers at the U.S. Capitol and congressional office buildings have already repaired cracked plaster, chipped paint and missing ceiling tiles. Engineers found no major damage to any of the buildings, Architect of the Capitol spokeswoman Eva Malecki said.
On Wednesday a handful of federal buildings remained closed, including some offices of the Homeland Security, Agriculture and Interior departments.
Stressed-out D.C. mother of four Marion Babcock, who spent two hours in traffic instead of her normal 25 minutes, did the only sensible thing for her frazzled, frightened kids: “I treated their post-traumatic stress with copious amounts of chocolate mint and cookie dough ice cream.”
Between cell phones and social networks, news of the quake seemed to travel faster than the temblor itself.
Jenna Scanlon of Floral Park, N.Y., ended a phone call with someone in McLean, Va., and announced to her office colleagues there had been an earthquake. Seconds later, 7 World Trade Center began to shake.
The scope of the damage — or lack of — also quickly became clear on social networks. Instead of collapsed freeways, people posted images of toppled lawn chairs and yogurt cups, broken Bobbleheads, picture frames askew on walls.
On Facebook, people joked with posts such as “S&P has downgraded earthquake to a 2.0,” a swipe at the rating agency that recently lowered the federal government’s creditworthiness. Another suggested New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a large man, had just “jumped into” the presidential race.
About 35 miles north of the epicenter in Culpeper, Va., officials were doing a building-by-building inspection of the downtown business district. Several historic buildings were damaged.
In West Virginia, environmental regulators sent engineers to inspect massive coal slurry dams that could wipe out entire communities if they were to fail and release billions of gallons of wastewater.
Meanwhile, the Tennessee Valley Authority said that checks of its dams and nuclear plants in several states had turned up no problems.
Amtrak said trains along the Northeast Corridor between Baltimore and Washington were operating at reduced speeds and crews were inspecting stations and railroad infrastructure before returning to normal.
Even those who knew what was happening had braced for worse, some remembering the Indian Ocean quake that triggered a tsunami and a nuclear disaster in Japan.
“I knew it was an earthquake, but my first thought was, ‘Oh my God, something’s going to happen to the power plant,” said 21-year-old Whitney Thacker in Mineral, Va., a town near the epicenter where the sidewalks were littered with fallen stones, masonry and broken glass. “It was scary.”
Dominion Virginia Power shut down its two-reactor nuclear power plant within 10 miles of the quake’s epicenter, but said there was no evidence of any damage to the decades-old North Anna Power Station.
By the standards of the West Coast, where earthquakes are much more common, the Virginia quake was mild. Since 1900, there have been 40 of magnitude 5.8 or greater in California alone.
But quakes in the East tend to be felt across a much broader area, the waves traveling “pretty happily out for miles,” said U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Susan Hough.
The last quake of equal power to strike the East Coast was in New York in 1944. The largest East Coast quake on record was a 7.3 that hit South Carolina in 1886.
The fear in some places was real.
Michael Leman had been mowing a neighbor’s lawn in Mineral when bricks began falling from a chimney and the earth heaved a large propane tank about a foot off the ground.
“I thought that tank was about to explode,” he said, “and I ran for dear life.”
Lewis reported from Mineral, and Smith from Morgantown, W.Va. Contributing to this report were: Zinie Chen Sampson in Mineral; Hank Kurz in Richmond; Larry Neumeister, Verena Dobnik and Adam Geller in New York; Seth Borenstein, Charles Babington, Stephen Ohlemacher, Eileen Sullivan, Mark Sherman, Jack Gillum, Lolita C. Baldor and Larry Margasak in Washington; Barbara Ortutay in San Francisco; and Tom Withers in Cleveland.