Virginia earthquake 2011: Two years later, scars and memories linger

The top of a wall collapsed at a business office building in the 8300 block of Old Courthouse road in Vienna, crushing four cars.46 Photos
(Photo: Jay Korff/WJLA | Date: Aug. 23, 2011)
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"I felt this crazy rumbling"

Not more than 30 minutes after Sara Sankey got home to Montgomery County after her surgery, her family helped her get comfortable on the couch.

She barely had any time to get settled in.

"I felt this crazy rumbling and wasn't sure what it was," Sankey said. "I looked over at our fish tank and the water was sloshing out of the tank violently."

Sankey and her family knew they had to get out of the house. There was one problem, though - Sankey couldn't walk down the stairs because of the incisions from her surgery that were still healing.

"My mom is from California and knew it was an earthquake," she said. "She lifted me up and carried me down the stairs.

"It made me very thankful the earthquake wasn't 24 hours earlier when I was in surgery."

The groundwork for scaffolding at the Washington Monument

Meanwhile, in terms of the millions of dollars of damage done close to the epicenter and, notably, to prominent structures in the District including the Washington Monument and Washington National Cathedral, Bellini says the region’s proximity to the epicenter and the age of those structures didn’t make the damage levels all too surprising.

“The buildings we’re talking about are older, brick structures that don’t have the reinforced concrete or rebar like modern structures,” he said.

Bellini said that it’s up to the governments of local jurisdictions to draw up seismic codes for new and older buildings, no matter how infrequently moderate or major earthquakes hit.

“The eastern United States have a less frequent quake history, and the determination of their codes is up to the individual states,” he said. “They have to assess their seismic risk.”

Eventually, the Washington Monument was marked for a prolonged closure and encased in scaffolding while workers continue to repair numerous cracks to the façade. The Cathedral, meanwhile, raised millions of dollars to fix intricate stonework and cracked and fell during the earthquake.

The Cathedral eventually reopened in November after a stone-by-stone inspection of parts of the damaged building. However, officials continue to raise much-needed money to expedite further repairs.

Work on the interior vaulting of the massive cathedral continues and nets still line portions of the ceiling to prevent loose stone work from tumbling below.

"This has been a difficult time for the Cathedral, made easier by the support of so many in the Washington community as well as by supporters across the nation,” Rev. John Bryson Chane said just before the Cathedral’s reopening.

To this day, the Washington Monument remains under construction, with completion slated for next spring. And on Thursday, a day before the two-year anniversary of the quake, National Cathedral officials announced that they had raised $10 million of the $26 million they need to fully repair the Wisconsin Avenue icon.

“This Cathedral is not just a building, it is an organization with a mission," Rev. Gary Hall said. "Part of the missional life of this place is recovering and restoring our building from the earthquake damage from 2011, and part of it is serving as a spiritual home for the nation."

“We all looked at one another wide eyed”

For Oxon Hill resident Tangerine Washington, by the early afternoon on Aug. 23, the customer flow had slowed down at the Connecticut Avenue bank branch at which she worked.

Then, she says a deafening roar enveloped the bank as the ground began to move.

“I didn’t immediately know it was a quake after all of the odd things that have happened,” she said in an email interview. “As the ground continued to shake, the realization hit that it was definitely an earthquake.”

Washington and her colleagues dove under their desks and stations until the ground stopped shaking, after which a silence and a quick realization hit all of them.

“We all kind of looked at one another wide eyed,” she said. “I could see our monitors and other items on the county wildly flapping bath and forth.”

Along with thousands of other workers in the D.C. area, Washington took the crowded Red and Green lines of Metro home. WMATA ordered train conductors to slow to 15 miles per hour in the aftermath of the quake, just in case the earthquake had caused or exposed any problems with tracks throughout the system.

What Washington remembers beyond the system’s crawl, though, was how eerily quiet her trains were.

“There are usually a lot of rude or loud people on the trains, but this time everybody was quiet,” she recalled. “Not even any loud MP3 players. I remember the train operator reminding us, in a slightly shaken voice, that we were going slow just in case there were any track problems.

“I think the quake really had everyone disoriented and shaken.”

The disorientation and fright wasn’t limited to people; Washington says that once she got home, her usually docile cat “wouldn’t stop talking to her."

“She liked to purr when I got home, but this time she wouldn’t shut up,” Washington said. “I picked her up and kept responding to her until she finally started to relax. She slept with me that night, even though during the summer, she usually slept in the living room.”

The scars remain, but the people move forward

Whether it be cracks in the road, a sensitivity to anything that trembles for longer than a few seconds or, the Washington Monument’s construction work or the construction of new schools in Louisa County, the reminders of the quake that rocked Washington remain.

In the nine months that followed the original earthquake, the USGS measured nearly 450 aftershocks, some of which were felt all the way up in Washington; most all of them served to fray nerves near the epicenter.

In Germantown, Sankey says she feels very healthy two years on from her heart surgery. As if she needed any further reason to remember the operation, the earthquake serves as just that.

"I definitely remember the experience like it was yesterday," Sankey said. "It will be something I always remember."

For the millions of others who live here, it’s a day they’ll too never forget. For Barbara Pettit and her students, it’s one that truly exposed the bond of a community.

In weeks after the quake, the writing class at Louisa County High was given a mission by their superintendent – to handwrite 500 thank you notes to “anyone and everyone” who helped the school and the county.

“It’s the little things in addition to the big things,” she said. “I have a great sense of pride of how we all pulled together.”

Photo credits: U.S. Geological Society, National Park Service, Brian Gillooly, Louisa County Public Schools

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