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2011-08-25: Earthquake

5.8 eq Chaos!

I was sitting in the office and just completed peeling off the skin of a clementine when I felt the floor shaking for at least a good 10 seconds.  I thought to myself “What was that?  Was it an earthquake?” but still calmly broke the clementine in halves and was ready to consume it.   Then I heard people yelling,  “Get out! Get out!”   “Run! Run!”  Instinctively, I followed them rushing out of the building and on to the street, holding half of the clementine in my right hand.  That’s how I remember where I was and what I was doing when the 5.8 earthquake hit the town of Mineral, Virginia - about 85 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. - at 1:51PM on August 23, 2011.

Within 2 minutes, I was already down on the street where I was met by a sea of people.  Never had I seen such a massive group of office workers filling up the streets around my office building.  People started making calls from their cell phones.  I did the same.   First, I hit the speed dial number for my home phone but the phone automatically stopped dialing after about 2 seconds.  Repeated attempts also failed.  Then I sent a text message to my daughter and after 15 seconds I was notified that the message could not be delivered.   I hit the Resend button a couple times and it seemed to go through.  

About 30 minutes after the earthquake, I finally received a text message my daughter had sent earlier (based on the time stamp) asking if I was ok and that she was stuck in an elevator during the earthquake.  A minute or so later another message from her saying that she was OK.  I knew then at least my daughter was OK.

I moved closer to an overpass with a clearance to see if the phone signal may be stronger but it made no difference.   So I stood there watching the helicopters hovering in the air in the direction of the White House.   From my vintage point, I can see the top of the Washington Monument on my right and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial right in front of me.  At first, I thought the helicopters were protecting the White House, but then I saw one helicopter circling the Washington Monument and then over the Thomas Jefferson Memorial a few times.   When one flew closer I could see “Park Police” on the side of the helicopter I then realized that they were trying to assess the damage of those structures.

After 45 minutes had passed, I still could not call home!  In the first minute of the chaos to rush out of the building, I brought with me half of the clementine I had peeled off instead of the Blackberry, which could have been of more use for me then.   No phone, no internet access, no news!  Through words of mouth I already heard people confirmed that it was an earthquake in Virginia but I didn’t know exactly where it hit.  I thought that it could be in Manassas where there had been a small earthquake more than 10 years ago.  In fact it was a baby 2.5 back in 1997 that actually broke a couple pictures in our house because we lived closer to the epicenter.

Finally, we were allowed back in to the building after almost an hour.  I quickly called my wife using the desk phone and I immediately got through to her.  She and my son were at home and they were both OK.  During the earthquake, my wife was doing the laundry.  She first felt the house trembling and saw the flat screen TV sitting on top of the glass stand in the family room shaking quite violently.  By instinct, she ran over and held on to the TV to keep it from falling, but then she quickly realized that it was an earthquake.  So she started to run for cover and the rumble stopped. 

It’s interesting how our mind processes information and makes decision, although most was based initially on our instinct and then on our individual reasoning.  The decision we make in situation like this could be the difference between life and death.  While I was standing on the edge of the overpass to watch the helicopters, I already made a conscious decision to stay away from the buildings, just in case they might collapse.  But soon I realized I was standing on an overpass, not on “solid” ground.  If it collapsed I would likely be buried among the rubble, with not much a chance for survival.

For those who have worked in the federal buildings for a long time, the 9/11 event has also significently raised the level of alertness for potential thread.  Any loud noise or building shaking would get their attention immediately.  I have only worked in D.C. for less than a year, so I haven’t learned that yet.  Had I not been urged by others to leave the building, I would have stayed inside.

This experience also proves a lack of sufficient communication infrastructure to support people in a crisis like this.  Within minutes our main way of communication via cell phones seemed to be completely shut down or was seriously delayed. Phone records show that the one and only text message I was I able to get through to my daughter was sent at 2:01PM but the message was not delivered until 2:25PM, a long 24 minutes later.

Last but not least, Mother Nature is unpredictable.  It seems that even with advanced technologies we could never accurately predict when or where a disaster will occur and prepare enough for such an event.