An unsettled Washington region awoke Wednesday to the closure of many area schools, some federal buildings and landmarks including the Washington Monument, a day after a rare, powerful 5.8-magnitude earthquake rattled the eastern third of the United States and unnerved tens of millions of people from Georgia to New England.
The early-afternoon quake, which damaged older buildings and shut down much of the nation’s capital Tuesday, was followed by several aftershocks, including a 3.4-magnitude temblor early Wednesday. The U.S. Geological Survey recorded it at 12:45 a.m. Eastern time 39 miles northwest of Richmond. Like Tuesday’s quake, it was a shallow one, occurring three miles below the surface.
Metro and commuter rail services returned to normal Wednesday morning, but federal authorities closed a number of government buildings pending further damage inspections. Among them were buildings of the departments of agriculture, homeland security, interior and health and human services. D.C. public schools were closed, as were schools in several districts in Virginia and Maryland.
Officials also shut the Washington Monument, the Washington National Cathedral and the Smithsonian Institution Building, known as the castle, because of earthquake damage.
Despite the closures, federal agencies were officially open Wednesday, with unscheduled leave and telework available.
It was not a killer quake, nor even a particularly injurious one. But if it didn’t add up to a natural disaster, it was still a startling geological event, the strongest East Coast tremor in 67 years, and it effectively blew up the workday in Washington on Tuesday.
Any assumption that the region is seismically serene was corrected at 1:51 p.m. when a fault near the small town of Mineral, Va., suddenly ruptured. In Boston or Charleston or Detroit it might have felt like a sudden case of vertigo. Closer to the epicenter it was not so subtle. It began with a shudder, as if a helicopter were landing nearby or perhaps someone had turned on a large piece of machinery. Within a couple of seconds, it grew into a heaving, bucking, no-doubt-about-it earthquake.
It was over in less than a minute. Workers surged out of office buildings, and cellphone networks quickly clogged. The Federal Emergency Management Agency eventually sent out a statement asking the public to switch to e-mail or text messages.
Capstones, known as finials, fell from three spires on Washington National Cathedral, and cracks appeared in the flying buttresses on the older east side. “Please pray for the Cathedral as there has been some damage,” the cathedral said in its official Twitter feed.
An inspection turned up cracks “at the very, very top” of the Washington Monument, said National Park Service spokesman Bill Line. The 555-foot-tall stone obelisk “could be closed for an indefinite period of time,” he said.
More than 500 people were displaced in Prince George’s County as authorities condemned and evacuated two high-rise apartment buildings.
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