WASHINGTON — A magnitude 5.8 earthquake rattled nerves and jolted buildings in the nation's capital Tuesday, a rare geological event that was felt up and down the East Coast from Georgia to Massachusetts.
The quake's epicenter was about 83 miles southwest of Washington in Virginia. It struck just before 2 p.m. EDT, immediately sparking fears of a 9/11-type attack given that the area is not prone to temblors.
"This earthquake was the largest in intensity and extent in historic times," Julie Dutton, a geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey's National Earthquake Center in Boulder, Colo., told McClatchy.
Washington office buildings and centers of power were quickly evacuated in orderly fashion, but the massive volume of cellphone calls and text messages appeared to have crashed communications systems.
The quake was felt on Martha's Vineyard, where President Obama was playing golf. Reporters traveling with Obama said they felt it. The White House said late Tuesday that the president did not.
In an earlier statement, the White House said that Obama led a conference call an hour after the quake with homeland security officials and science advisers and was told that there were no reports of major infrastructure damage.
With memories of Japan's post-tsunami nuclear problems still fresh, 11 U.S. nuclear plants — in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Michigan — went on low-alert status, declaring an "unusual event" because they felt the earthquake. This triggers closer review of operations by plant officials and regulators.
Late in the day, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a statement confirming that a 12th plant, the North Anna Power Station, operated by Dominion Virginia Power and relatively close to the epicenter, was on a higher alert status.
The North Anna station declared its alert — the second-lowest of the commission's four emergency classifications —"when the plant lost electricity from the grid following the quake," the NRC said. "Power is being provided by onsite diesel generators and the plant's safety systems are operating normally. Plant personnel and NRC resident inspectors are continuing to examine plant conditions."
At New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, the temblor shook water bottles and magazines off shelves and frightened travelers. Some buildings in Manhattan were evacuated as a precaution, and several airports along the East Coast were briefly closed to ensure there was no significant runway damage.
The biggest scare, however, may have been in the nation's capital, where the unexpected and unusual quake first felt like a wave followed by violent shaking. Drywall buckled and chipped, making surreal popping sounds. Light fixtures swayed as perplexed workers in office buildings struggled to make sense of why the ground was literally moving beneath their feet.
At a Target store in the capital, merchandise tumbled to the floor and stunned shoppers beat a quick path to the exits.
Even the Reston, Va., headquarters of the U.S. Geological Survey, which tracks earthquakes, was evacuated on Tuesday.
"It shook pretty significantly," said Anne-Berry Wade, an agency spokeswoman.
Va. town at epicenter
The earthquake's epicenter was closest to the Virginia town of Mineral, home to 430 residents. Mayor Pam Harlowe told McClatchy late Tuesday afternoon that the town hall was one of a small number of buildings still deemed unsafe. Several walls at the town hall had cracked, and shattered glass littered Mineral's post office, she said.
"We're a little shook up but other than that everybody's good," she said. "Everybody's safe, so that's what counts."
The Pentagon, which was attacked on 9/11, was hastily evacuated after the quake, which triggered a water line break that added to the confusion and fear.
The National Cathedral suffered damage, too, said spokesman Richard Weinberg. Capstones plunged off three corners of its central tower and there was other exterior damage.
The mass transit system that serves the capital and surrounding suburbs operated at a crawl Tuesday night, and Amtrak trains also were moving at below-normal speeds as tracks were checked.
Lawyers and policy analysts on the top floor of the Treasury Department, next door to the White House, held hands and took shelter in doorjambs as the 19th-century marble building shook and ceiling tiles fell to the floor. At the State Department, some worried that a bomb might have gone off.
Sarah Little, an aide to Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., was walking near Union Station when she saw a row of brownstone buildings lean far enough forward to touch some nearby trees.
"I'm not going in there for a very long time," she said.
Schools in suburban Maryland and Virginia, some marking their first day of classes for the new school year, were evacuated as a precaution and traffic was snarled as worried parents quickly took to the roads. Workers at the Maryland state capitol in Annapolis were evacuated for half an hour.
Once calm returned, opportunity replaced panic. At Duffy's Irish Pub, a happy-hour special was offered — pints of Guinness beer for $5.90. The bar, one of several that quickly offered quake -themed specials, noted that if the magnitude of the earthquake is revised, the special would change accordingly.