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The Washington, D.C. Area Earthquake

On Aug. 23, 2011, the Earth moved in Washington, D.C., and it had nothing to do with politics. A Richter-scale measured earthquake of 5.8 jolted the nation’s capitol from what was a pleasant summer afternoon. With the president and Congress both out of town on summer vacations, a slower pace had begun to settle in, but it quickly came to an abrupt end. With people bolting from their office buildings and onto sidewalks and city parks and plazas, a city long accustomed to the most jarring (and occasionally unsettling) of statements and positions found itself in a state of shock from the one threat that no one had every seriously talked about or even considered – earthquakes.

Take it from someone who has lived in the greater National Capital Region for a quarter century. We’ve had million-man marches, rallies, and events that grind the area to a halt; Beltway traffic at almost any point in the day that is in a perpetual state of gridlock; terrorist strikes and lingering threats of more; crippling blizzards and ice storms as well as heat waves and Code Orange air quality days in the same year; thunderstorms (large and small) that regularly take down power to large sections of the area; and regular Metro rail and bus accidents; and these are just some of the things we expect on a regular basis.

Despite all of these unfortunate and known “character” attributes, Washington residents, tourists, and other visitors found themselves genuinely surprised by a jolt that literally came out of the blue. Of all the things that are on the “threat spectrum” for Washington (or for that matter most of the East Coast), an earthquake was probably ranked just above the least likely threat.

Despite all of these unfortunate and known “character” attributes, Washington residents, tourists, and other visitors found themselves genuinely surprised by a jolt that literally came out of the blue. Of all the things that are on the “threat spectrum” for Washington (or for that matter most of the East Coast), an earthquake was probably ranked just above the least likely threat.

No more.

Virginia Earthquake Map

U.S. Geological Survey map of the Virginia area earthquake, Aug. 23, 2011. Image courtesy of U.S.G.S.

It’s now on the list of things we all have to be prepared for, and that brings us to a very simple point that should not be lost on anyone. Since 9/11 there has been an almost constant drumbeat of elected and appointed officials, media personalities, emergency experts, and public safety personnel imploring, if not begging people to have a plan of what to do in case of an emergency. That would include knowing how to exit a building in the event of an emergency; how to communicate with loved ones and co-workers in the event communications failed; what your family and co-workers should do to get in contact with one another; identifying back-up means of leaving an area; and so forth.

A number of people on the afternoon of Aug. 23 knew how to do all of those things. While each person was individually rattled by the experience, those who had a plan were in a far better place than those who had never taken the time to think about what they would do or how they would reconnect with their loved ones and professional colleagues.

Ignorance is no longer an acceptable excuse in these situations – for people inside the Beltway or beyond it.

The National Capital Region area has truly been through it all in the past few years, but there are some absolute guarantees when the “you know what” does hit the fan around here:

  • Communications (e.g., cell phones, etc.) will be clogged or go down.
  • Transportation (e.g., cars, public transportation, airports, etc.) will be an even bigger mess or come to a complete stop.
  • Government (e.g., federal, congressional, or regional) will do something to make an already difficult situation worse.

Despite knowing all of these guarantees (which happened again – almost like clockwork), there remain that select few in the area who again go through daily life without thinking of their own preparedness.

They have received their last, gentle wakeup call. While there was nothing remotely gentle about the ground you were standing upon shaking violently, the fact there were no fatalities, serious injuries, or collapsed buildings was a blessing amidst another teachable disaster moment.

The broken spires of the National Cathedral and cracks in the Washington Monument caused by the earthquake can all be repaired. An expired human life cannot be.

It’s a shame that, a decade after the 9/11 attacks, the three guaranteed distinctions I mentioned above remain firmly in place, especially given the multiple situations that have warned us all to be ready. Each of those regularly encountered problems is inherently manageable with planning, preparing, and partnering with one’s family, friends, and colleagues.

2011 Washington D.C. Earthquake

U.S. government employees evacuate buildings at 13th at and C St. in Washington, D.C., as a result of a 5.8 earthquake that hit about 1:50 p.m. EST on August 23, 2011. U.S. Department of Agriculture photo by Lance Cheung

That’s a lesson that is ignored at one’s peril. If all of the previous “events” have not woken people up to doing these things, it’s hard to believe that an unprecedented earthquake might do the trick. This region, or for that matter, our country has received its last gentle wake up call for personal preparedness.

Regardless of economic circumstances, there is a mountain of information as well as resources, networks and programs to help anyone do the basics of readiness. We’ve made preparedness accessible and understandable and put it into every conceivable language and every possible format for easy-to-digest consumption.

The broken spires of the National Cathedral and cracks in the Washington Monument caused by the earthquake can all be repaired. An expired human life cannot be.

Government, public safety/emergency management, the private sector and educators have for the most part done their jobs in telling people what they need to be doing in times of emergency. All of those parties are certainly obligated to keep people informed on unfolding threats and offer and reinforce direction(s) on what to do, but in terms of preparedness instruction, they have overwhelmingly done their job.

The rest is up to each citizen. It’s called personal preparedness and no one can do that but the individual.

By

Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...