Shake it up Baby: the 2011 Earthquake

You might well wonder what relevance the earthquake from two years ago could have on my current existence in DC, but as I’ve shown my many visitors around the area, I’ve found that the earthquake is a theme that seems to crop up constantly.

My firsthand experience with the earthquake was limited, but I remember the flurry of activity on Facebook as many of my friends reported feeling the vibration back in August of 2011.  The tectonic plates on the East Coast transmit vibrations far more extensively and rapidly than the plates on the West coast, which is why people felt the effects of the Virginia quake to the south in Atlanta, north in Quebec, and west in Illinois.  When my BH and I were out in Colorado, we learned from the USGS that they were able to capture those social media data through their website and the link, “Did you feel it?”  Their short questionnaire is remarkably accurate at determining the magnitude of shaking at a person’s location, and thus they were able to refine their original shake map to reflect more accurately the magnitude of the vibration in any location.  USGS also nailed the damage estimates extremely accurately.  FEMA thought the estimates were high, but by the time the damages were totaled to all of the big buildings in the area, the USGS was right on the money.

Speaking of money, during Orientation back in September, we had a special session with the Congressional Research Service just for Congressional Fellows.  We noticed that in the back of the plastic badge holder worn by one of our presenters, the woman had a $20 bill.  We asked about it, and she explained that when the earthquake happened, everyone had to leave the building and was not allowed back inside because everything had to be checked to ensure it was safe.  The woman had to borrow money from one of her staff members to get a ride home, and ever since then, she’s kept emergency money with her badge.  I thought it was a good idea, and I have also stashed some emergency cash just in case.  The funds are also good for emergency ice cream, emergency frozen yogurt, emergency hot chocolate… you get the idea.

As a quick survey of earthquake-affected locations, in the Library of Congress, in one of the upper galleries, the ceiling is divided up in squares, each with a stone rosette in the center.  One square is empty where the rosette fell to the floor during the earthquake. Union Station still has black netting half way up the huge vaulted space to catch pieces that fell in the two years since the quake.  I’ve spotted at least two stone chunks caught in the netting that might have hit someone if the net wasn’t there. The Lee mansion in Arlington was already scheduled to undergo restoration, but extra cracks to repair appeared as a result of the quake.  In contrast, the cast iron dome of the Capitol didn’t even flinch.


Photo of earthquake damage at the National Cathedral

Photo of earthquake damage at the National Cathedral


The National Cathedral suffered some of the most spectacular damage, and because it is a church, no federal funds can be provided to help with the repairs.  Stone buildings do particularly poorly in earthquakes, and I recall that a number of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, including the Pharos Lighthouse and the Colossus at Rhodes were both destroyed by earthquakes.  At the Cathedral, turrets twisted and lost their tops, and one gargoyle lost its head when it was struck by a falling chunk of stone from higher up on the tower.  The fiery light of the rose window inside is muted by the black netting that continues to protect people below.  Outside, a platform has been built on the highest tower to stabilize the structure and prevent further damage.  I, personally, think that it looks like the Cathedral is wearing a hat, and since it has been there for my entire year, I shall undoubtedly miss it when the repairs are complete and the hat is no longer needed.

The National Cathedral wearing its "hat"

The National Cathedral wearing its “hat”

I recently learned that the Bishop’s Garden at the Cathedral suffered damage even after the quake when a huge crane brought in to cope with the immediate earthquake damage fell over and took out some of the trees, shrubs, and a stone arch.  I can only imagine how heartbreaking that must have been to the caretakers, but since I was unaware of any obvious issues during my spring visits to the garden, they have done a wonderful job of recovering.

The top of a turret from the National Cathedral

The top of a turret from the National Cathedral

Construction of the scaffolding for the Washington Monument

Construction of the scaffolding for the Washington Monument

After the earthquake, the National Park Service almost immediately closed the Washington Monument.  Engineers rappelled down the sides (how cool must that have been?!) and established that indeed the structure had been damaged and was not safe for tours.  Over the past several months, the Monument has slowly been encased in scaffolding, which was specially designed for the most recent renovation.  The scaffolding rests against the stone by padded brackets, but it does not actually attach to the monument.  Once the steel corset had been completed, (and it took some interesting contortions to do the top!) they added strips of blue fabric to create a look to mimic the stone blocks used to construct the monument.  Recently lights have been added to illuminate the structure at night, and there was a special ceremony when the lights were first turned on.  Repairs are expected to take the better part of a year, but every effort has been made to provide a reasonably attractive façade in the meanwhile.

Completed scaffolding

Completed scaffolding

All of these examples illustrated to me how long it can take to recover from an earthquake completely, even in a prosperous area, but I look upon each scrim and scaffold as evidence of humanity’s unrelenting capacity to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Close up of the scaffolding with the stone block effect

Close up of the scaffolding with the stone block effect.  Note this is the elevator side!


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