NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

Earthquake strikes near D.C.: Nation’s capital gets a taste of a major hazard we live with

An hour ago, a sig­nif­i­cant earth­quake struck near one of the Unit­ed States’ most pop­u­lat­ed areas, caus­ing minor dam­age, dis­rupt­ing trav­el, and prompt­ing evac­u­a­tions of build­ings. But unusu­al­ly, the pop­u­lat­ed area that this quake affect­ed was not in Cal­i­for­nia, or on the Left Coast, or even west of the Rocky Moun­tains, where earth­quakes are an unwel­come part of life.

The tremor, cen­tered under Min­er­al, Vir­ginia, instead shook the Dis­trict of Colum­bia, the Atlantic seaboard, and parts of New Eng­land.

Nat­u­ral­ly, cable TV news (which is large­ly based in D.C. and New York) is hav­ing a field day with this. So are the East Coast’s major news­pa­pers. The Wash­ing­ton Post’s web­site car­ried a head­line which read: “BREAKING NEWS: 5.8 mag­ni­tude earth­quake shakes Wash­ing­ton.”

The short sto­ry linked from this head­line shows a pic­ture of peo­ple (some pre­sum­ably Post employ­ees) milling around out­side of its offices.

The pho­to­graph itself is evi­dence that peo­ple on the East Coast are unused to earth­quakes and lack the knowl­edge of how to stay safe in the after­math of one.

The great­est dan­ger exists direct­ly out­side build­ings, at exits and along­side exte­ri­or walls. Many of the 120 fatal­i­ties from the 1933 Long Beach earth­quake occurred when peo­ple ran out­side of build­ings only to be killed by falling debris from col­laps­ing walls. Ground move­ment dur­ing an earth­quake is sel­dom the direct cause of death or injury. Most earth­quake-relat­ed casu­al­ties result from col­laps­ing walls, fly­ing glass, and falling objects.

The above excerpt is from FEMA’s earth­quake page, which advis­es Amer­i­cans against loi­ter­ing out­side of build­ings fol­low­ing an earth­quake.

Giv­en that the real Wash­ing­ton — Wash­ing­ton State — is earth­quake coun­try, the Post could have been more pre­cise in announc­ing the news by report­ing that an earth­quake had struck D.C. (the Dis­trict of Colum­bia).

We here in the great Ever­green State did not feel the quake, though we can sym­pa­thize with those who were scared or caught off-guard, since tremors are a haz­ard that we sim­ply have to deal with as Wash­ing­to­ni­ans.

The Unit­ed States Geo­log­i­cal Sur­vey (USGS) is report­ing that the quake was actu­al­ly a mag­ni­tude 5.9 tremor (it was appar­ent­ly upgrad­ed from 5.8). The quake struck at 1:51 PM local time — 10:51 AM Pacif­ic Time. The actu­al loca­tion was list­ed as 37.975°N, 77.969°W. The loca­tion uncer­tain­ty was list­ed as hor­i­zon­tal +/- 10.9 km (6.8 miles); depth +/- 7.4 km (4.6 miles).

Build­ings across the nation’s cap­i­tal were evac­u­at­ed in response to the earth­quake, includ­ing the White House and the Pen­ta­gon.

Alarms report­ed­ly went off at the head­quar­ters of the FBI and the Depart­ment of Jus­tice. Area air­ports, includ­ing Joint Base Andrews, also evac­u­at­ed their con­trol tow­ers and halt­ed flight oper­a­tions.

A nuclear pow­er plant locat­ed near the epi­cen­ter was also auto­mat­i­cal­ly brought offline as a pre­cau­tion.

The plant is safe­ly run­ning on back­up pow­er for the time being.

It has been a long time since the East Coast was shak­en by an earth­quake this sig­nif­i­cant. Per­haps the mil­lions of peo­ple who live there can now bet­ter appre­ci­ate the threat of seis­mic destruc­tion that we on the Left Coast live with con­stant­ly. When earth­quakes strike here, they can eas­i­ly cause major dam­age and claim lives.

Geol­o­gists tell us that we are over­due for a major earth­quake here in the Ever­green State. It could strike at any time and we would have no warn­ing.

We there­fore have a great appre­ci­a­tion for fed­er­al agen­cies like the U.S. Geo­log­i­cal Sur­vey (USGS), the Nation­al Ocean­ic and Atmos­pher­ic Admin­is­tra­tion (NOAA), and NOAA’s Nation­al Weath­er Ser­vice. Just this spring, House Repub­li­cans pro­posed dev­as­tat­ing cuts to these agen­cies.

We at NPI hope today’s quake leads to greater pres­sure on the Repub­li­cans to drop their hor­ri­bly short­sight­ed, extreme­ly coun­ter­pro­duc­tive schemes to weak­en the vital pub­lic ser­vices that I just men­tioned.

POSTSCRIPT: Mar­cy Wheel­er has more on this (Can­torQuake: Trem­bling at the Heart of GOP Claims We Don’t Need Gov­ern­ment).

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