Where were you the day the earth moved?

The 5.8-magnitude earthquake centered northwest of Richmond, Va., shook much of Washington, D.C., Tuesday afternoon, rattling windows and nerves. The quake was felt as far north as New York City and Canada and as far west as Chicago. By West Coast standards, the 5.8-magnitude jolt is considered mild, but according to The Associated Press, it is the strongest to hit the eastern United States since the Second World War.

Staff from the Office of Public Affairs in the immediate aftermath of the quake. From left, Public Affairs Specialist for Science John Gibbons, Deputy Director for Communications Carolyn Martin and New Media Specialist Sarah Sulick. (Photo by Alex di Giovanni)

Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough, a structural engineer and earthquake expert, was as startled by the quake as everyone else. “We were having a meeting with some of my regents and education people. At first I thought it was a truck with some heavy equipment,” he said. But he quickly realized differently. We all looked at one another and I said, ‘I think this is an earthquake. I told everybody to get under the table.’ ” said Clough.

All the buildings at the Smithsonian were closed, including the landmark Castle building, where Clough was meeting. An initial survey “showed some cracks in beams and perhaps in some of the foundations,” Clough said. On Wednesday, the Smithsonian museums on the mall and the National Zoo reopened, although some exhibitions may be closed until curators are able to assess whether they sustained damage. The Castle and the Museum Support Center in Suitland, Md., remain closed to staff and the public today. Staff at these facilities should check for updates.

Where were you when the earthquake struck? How was your commute? We want to hear your stories and see your photos. Leave comments and links below or visit us on Facebook to post your pictures.

Aug. 24. Workers check for damage and replace fallen ceiling tiles at the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Bechtel)

Aug. 24 UPDATE. Secretary Clough sent this e-mail to all Smithsonian staff Wednesday evening.

Dear Colleagues,

Today, I visited four Smithsonian facilities affected by Tuesday’s earthquake. Two of these facilities, the Castle Building and the Museum Support Center (MSC) sustained the most damage. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the extent of the damage to these two facilities was greater than we initially expected. It is clear that considerable costs will be involved at a time when resources are already constrained.

Although we began to investigate the after-effects immediately, this process, involving so many structures, is time consuming. We have hired four engineering firms to assist our own capable staff to conduct expedited structural evaluations. Today we continued the assessment, walking through buildings room by room, stairwell by stairwell, trying to document every crack.

The Castle will remain closed to staff and the public on Thursday and Friday. The issues lie with the east side of the building (closest to the Arts and Industries Building) both internally and with the chimneys and decorative turrets on the roof. We are working with structural engineers to secure these structures so they will not sustain further damage during the weekend’s anticipated hurricane. We will assess options for opening the building during the next few days.

The MSC is safe for limited access and will open Thursday for collections assessment and facility clean up only. Staff who are not engaged in these activities should not report to work; employees at MSC will receive further instructions from the Natural History Museum this evening.

I am both proud of and grateful to our expert and dedicated staff who have worked tirelessly since the earthquake to assure the safety and security of our staff and visitors. I am also grateful to staff who continued our daily work–cleaning, cutting grass and caring for collections–to ensure our museums and the Zoo were ready to open on time this morning. Thanks to everyone’s remarkable efforts over the last 24 hours, we are almost back to business as usual.

Wayne Clough


Aug. 25 UPDATE: Read how animals at the National Zoo reacted to the earthquake.


Thank you to everyone who has assisted the Smithsonian’s efforts to recover from the earthquake earlier this week. Efforts to identify and repair the damage that was sustained are going well and we have not discovered any new significant problems. In addition, preparations are underway to ensure damage is not exacerbated by rain or wind from Hurricane Irene which may affect the Washington metropolitan area over the weekend.

All of our museums and the National Zoo are expected to remain open to the public. The Castle will remain closed to visitors and staff through Monday, Aug. 29.  Staff who work in the Castle should plan to work from alternate locations or telework on Friday, Aug. 26 and Monday, Aug. 29. An announcement about the Castle’s Tuesday status will be posted by the end of the day on Monday.

Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough, right, examines the Smithsonian Institution Building ("The Castle") in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 26, 2011. The Castle sustained localized damage in the east wing during the Aug. 23 earthquake. Six chimneys and decorative turrets on the roof were damaged when some of the mortar holding the stones was shaken loose during the earthquake, and some stones shifted in place. Crews are working to secure the structures with plywood and metal and nylon bands so they will not sustain further damage during this weekend's anticipated hurricane. The Castle remains closed to the public and staff through Monday, Aug. 29. All Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo are open. (Photo by John Gibbons)

The continued closure of the Castle will allow us to complete repairs now underway to stabilize turrets and chimneys that sustained damage in the quake, and to clean plaster debris from interior spaces. Structural engineering experts will advise and inspect these efforts and we are hopeful that we can reopen the building safely early next week.

The Museum Support Center (MSC) will be open on Friday, Aug. 26 and beyond to all employees, but access to some of the pods may be limited to collections recovery and facilities staff for an additional period of time. Office of Protection Services officers will be posted at the entrances to these pods to control access to these spaces.

Lastly, the Office of Human Resources will be issuing separate guidance that will provide instructions on how employee timecards should reflect any disruptions to work hours this week.

Thank you all for your assistance and support during this challenging time.


Alison McNally

Under Secretary for Finance and Administration

Posted: 24 August 2011
About the Author:

Alex di Giovanni is primarily responsible for "other duties as assigned" in the Office of Communications and External Affairs. She has been with the Smithsonian since 2006 and plans to be interred in the Smithson crypt.

33 Responses to Where were you the day the earth moved?
    • Gary F. Hevel
    • I had recently found two micro-Lepidoptera during my backyard insect survey, and was going to take them to Don Davis for identification. This required transport by a small unit tray, and I was outside my NMNH office, bending over to retreive one from a box on the floor. With the onset of the earthquake, I was rudely forced into a small nearby specimen cabinet, and uttered at least one bad word. Rising into a standing position, I observed the floor doing what seemed to be strange exercises. My thoughts were that I was the victim of food-poisoning, or that I had been knocked out by the cabinet and had entered a dream sequence from a Disney cartoon movie. Because the surrounding 6 ft high specimen cabinets seemed to be rhythmically swaying, I chose the second possibility as the most likely, and breathlessly awaited the appearance of Snow White or Belle (of Beauty and the Beast). But reality quickly beset me when I heard colleagues shouting “Earthquake,” as they rushed to the stairs for evacuation. This was all on the 7th floor of the East Court, NMNH, so exiting the building was not instant. After some time on the Mall, we were allowed to re-enter the building to close down operations. This required climbing seven flights of stairs, which was the most straining part of the entire earthquake experience.

    • Paula Friedrich
    • I was off work, at home on my couch reading a book; I didn’t have a radio or TV turned on when it hit. I live on the 16th floor of a highrise, and I’d swear that couch HOPPED while the whole building shook and swayed for about 10 seconds. I had no idea WHAT had just happened: maybe, I though, a car hit the front of the building? About twenty minutes later, my sister in southern California (earthquake country!) called to ask if I was okay; she thought it was hilarious that SHE had to tell ME I had just felt an earthquake!

    • Mary Markey
    • I’d just finished lunch at the Smithsonian Institution Archives when there was a jolt as if something heavy had slammed against the building. Anna in the cubicle next to me said,”Well THAT was unusual!”

      Then the floor started rolling under us in deep waves– it felt as if we were surfing on it. I heard myself say, in a squeaky little voice, “This is an earthquake. I’m getting under my desk.”

      We hunkered down as the waves rolled under us. When the tremor was over, we got the order to evacuate.

      Cross one more thing off my bucket list– experiencing an earthquake. I’ll never look at a floor the same again.

      Later…after an excruciating commute, I reached my apartment & couldn’t find Stitch, my cat. Having turned everything in the apartment upside down,I concluded that someone from maintenance must have come in to check on things and accidentally let him out. I searched the basement, then ran around outside– no Stitch.

      I settled on the sofa to try & watch a movie & calm down. Around 10:30 PM, something licked my foot. Stitch had ripped a hole in the lining under the sofa & was hiding there. I had previously run my arms under the sofa, pulled it out from the wall– no sign of Stitch.

      He came out from under the sofa around midnight– but there was no Breakfast Dance of Joy the next morning, and he went right back under the sofa. I imagine to a cat’s mind, it was as if the room was angry at him & attacking with falling folding screens and shattering candlesticks.

    • Meredith McQuoid
    • I’m with SI Scholarly Press on the 7th floor of the “Aerospace” buidling, just acaross D St. from L’Enfant Plaza. Having never before experienced a quake but having been in DC on 9/11, I immediately thought it was a terrorist attack. I was very frightened–really thought this is it–I have to get out of here! A co-worker who had moved here from Utah told us it was an earthquake, and not really a bad one, which relieved me somewhat. But I was concerned about the safety of our building and we evacuated immediately.

      I was supposed to leave for a dental apppointment but was not sure of the safety of Metro. I asked a passenger who was trudging up the inoperable escalator if it was safe down there on the platform level, and he looked at me confusedly and said, “Sure. Why?” I guess the vibration of his metro ride had masked the tremor. I went down to wait for an Orange line train. As a Blue line train arrived, the announcement was made that the station was closing and everyone had to leave. Rather than go back up, I got right on that Blue train. Had to transfer at Stadium/Armory to await an Orange train, which thankfully came along about 15-20 minutes later. I was much less nervous once the train came out of the tunnel after that. I needed to get to New Carrollton but this train went no further than Cheverly, and passengers had to wait on a shuttle bus for transport to the last two stations down the line. Luckily that was not a long wait at all, but with the trains going only 15 mph, I was unable to keep my dentist apppointment. A typically 25-minute ride took over 90 minutes that day.

    • Angela
    • Sitting at my workstation checking email in the Cultural Interpreter’s office space,NMAI-NYC
      I said to my co-worker, “Look up there William!” (pointing my chin up while eyeing above the corner of the doorway where the ceiling meets the wall…) “I do believe just NOW we are being visited by a great and powerful Manitou! William says to me: “I don’t know Angela..but in my country, the Andes we recogonize this as a Trem-or.” I say to William, “A Trem-OR? What’s a TREM-OR???” He goes (on to say)…”You know when the Earth shakes?!” My reply: “It does W-H-A-T??? Shakes?? You mean this Great Turtle is MOVING?”

    • Amy Karazsia
    • I was in my office on the 5th floor of NMAH which looks out at the Washington Monument, and was talking on the phone with a donor. As the rumbling got stronger and I saw our roof terrace as well as the Monument shaking, I interrupted the donor to say “I have to go! I think there’s an earthquake.” I hung up the phone and rushed out of the building.

    • Jane Beck
    • I was in my office in Natural History, 3 floor main building. I first thought someone was moving a very heavy cart in the attic but I felt the floor moving so I thought it was in the hall. Then the building start to shake hard, at that time I realized it was an earthquake. I didn’t really want to take Metro home, between the possibility of another earthquake and the metro being packed with people I walked home, about 6 miles.

      I have wanted to know what one feels like, I thought it was cool until I was at work today and heard a cart move in the attic and thought oh no here we go again. I learned about the damage at MSC, the Castle and other places, I don’t want to experience another earthquake.

    • Cindy Zarate
    • Ironically I was on vacation in Southern California, shake country. We grew up with earthquakes and running earthquake drills.

    • Alcione Amos
    • I was at my desk at the Anacostia Community Museum. I heard a noise that sounded like a train coming trough, but at first I thought something was happening with the coffee pot which is placed at the back of the large open area where our cubicles are located. I got up and walked toward the back area and when I got there the noise, which had dissapeared briefly, came back even louder and the building started shaking. I held on to the counter of the big bookcase that is in that area and felt dizzy (since then I read that the feeling of vertigo in an earthquake is common.) I held on to the counter but in my mind I was telling myself: This is not a good idea this bookcase can come down on you. Then one of my colleagues screamed Earthquake! and we all dashed to the stairs. I stopped quickly by my cubicle to get my purse, how was I getting home without my keys? Outside we worried about a colleague who is disabled and could not get out by himself, but we realized his car was gone. Later he emailed from home saying that he was well. He had gone home because a repair person was coming. We all tried to call family members to reassure them that we were well but the cell phones did not work. Those who had IPhones got information out of the Internet. Slowly I calmed down and eventually got home. A trip that usually takes 15 minutes (I live in Southwest Washington and my commute from Anacostia is very easy) took almost two hours! Quite a day!

    • Joanna C. Scherer
    • I was in the basement cafeteria of the Natural History building when the shaking occurred. I thought at first it was the construction of our new Learning Center, but then after 20-30 sections of serious shaking I realized it was an earthquake. I took my intern and ran very fast out the loading platform door up to the Mall….rather than diving under the tables – which a lot of employees did (who ever thought up that absurdity – there were rows of employee butts all over the cafeteria!!! all faced heads in – there must be a joke about this somewhere!).

    • Alex di Giovanni
    • The earthquake had repercussions as far away as Bismarck, N.D. North Dakota’s budget director talks about being in the American History Museum when the quake hit. (Thanks to Melinda Machado for the link.)

    • Matt MacArthur
    • I had been to a doctor’s appt. and was telecommuting from home for the afternoon. Having grown up in California, I immediately knew what the earthquake was. Still, it seemed so out of place, like encountering someone from one part of your life in a completely different context. My wife, also a native Californian, quickly rounded up the kids (who aren’t in school yet) and we stood in doorways in the hall looking at each other. Since it seemed like it was going to be a relatively mild event (at least, where we were), I was thinking it was kind of cool that my kids were experiencing it since my wife and I always talk about living with earthquakes growing up. I guess this put a little grin on my face because my daughter said to me, as the shaking subsided, “Dad, why are you SMILING??” In any case, the worst we had to do was mop up water that sloshed out of the fish bowl. In retrospect, I am very glad to have missed the mayhem downtown and on the commute home.

    • Atesh Sonneborn
    • Had just finished an e-mail to OCON when the first tremor arrived and the rural Maryland building I was in began to shake. In the first 5-7 seconds I wondered if a bulldozer was demolishing the place, if a nuclear blast had detonated in DC, or if an earthquake was in progress. Then I heard the sound of bells from the woods approaching, in the front entryway and inside the building, a gentle chiming, perhaps a dozen simultaneously. The shaking seemed to increase so I went under a table, then the shaking stopped. The bells continued for a couple of seconds and faded away.

    • Nancy Pope
    • I was in a meeting in our building (Postal). We have construction going on for an exhibit, so at first we thought the loud noise was an accident there. Then the tables in the room started doing a seance dance – lifting up and moving from side to side. We decided to adjourn the meeting and continue later.

    • Lisa Walsh
    • I was at my desk on the 3rd floor of NASM in the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies reading the book on planetary tectonics and editing an excel file I am trying to use to display topographic profiles across tectonic features called wrinkle ridges on the Moon and Mercury. At first I thought it was the construction they have been doing on the roof which has recently caused the walls to shake for a few seconds, but this time it lasted too long. Then my cubicle wall and desk started shaking and I could feel the floor moving. Being in a group of geologists, suddenly someone yelled “that was an earthquake!” so we all gathered in the hallway in excitement.

      I am very excited this earthquake occurred! The other projects for my PhD dissertation focus on Neotectonics of the DC metro area and I just finished working on a paper on the stress transferred from last summer’s Germantown, MD, magnitude 3.4 earthquake. One of the goals of this project is to assess if any of the potentially active fault systems in the DC metro area, notably the DC Fault Zone and Stafford Fault Systems, were moved closer to failure as a results of the earthquake. I am now conducting a similar analysis for yesterday’s earthquake and its aftershocks! These earthquakes don’t happen very often so I am lucky to be studying intraplate earthquakes right now.

    • Najwa Thomas
    • On the day of, I decided to sit in front of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for my lunch break—a location I never sat before for lunch. The 7th street side of the building has a nice little area with circular white shade coverings in the front. These white shade coverings almost mimic flying saucers so I sat right under one and thought “what a nice change of scenery”.

      As I began to eat my lunch, I looked up at one of the circular coverings wobbling and thought, “That looks like a UFO shuttle getting ready for take off”. Suddenly I realized there was a force creating this wobbling effect as it was felt under me. The only thing I could think of was that the tremble was being caused by metro trains underground so I remained silent and still.

      When I saw people running out of the H.U.D. building was the moment I realized this force felt was bigger than a metro train running underground; it was the earth’s plates. Soon after, 7th street, SW began to look like a parade of federal workers.

    • Kristen Clark
    • I work at the National Zoo in the Great Cats & Bears unit. At the time, I was standing on the concrete floor of the Andean bear building, and my feet actually lifted off of the floor when the quake hit. It then sounded like something gigantic dropped on the roof of the building from the construction next door. Our adult male bear came out of his den and looked in the direction of the construction site. There was a huge crane still operating, just swinging back and forth. There was a construction worker that came out of one of the portable toilets and I remember thinking that must be the worst place to be in an earthquake!

    • Shannon
    • I was in the IMAX projection room at the Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

      As our movie was playing, all of a sudden the ceiling began to rumble and the projection room began to shake. Debris fell and equipment rattled, but amazingly the film still kept playing until it shut itself down from a power failure. I turned up the theater lights, grabbed my things and bolted out of there! I ended up meeting the rest of the staff outside on the Tidal Basin. Afterwards, I went home since Security had shut down the building for the rest of the day.

    • Heidi Kupke
    • I was 3 or 4 floors underground, in the Ripley Center, giving blood, when the room started to gyrate and the lights started to blink. I’d JUST reached the “Full” mark on my pint, so an alert medical technician kindly clamped off the tubing, closed the valves, removed the needle from my arm, and bandaged me up. Instead of the usual suggestion to go to the canteen for juice & cookies, the command was “Evacuate!”

      By the time I got back to my office building off the Mall, they had evacuated too, and the order had been given to go home “however you can get there.” Took around 3 hours to get home, once Metro started moving at all (at 15 mph). Then I walked the mile home from Metro station in my good sandals, walking shoes having been left upstairs in the office. Walking uphill a mile in hot sun in bad shoes after having just given a pint of blood is not my favorite way to spend an afternoon. I had to disobey the part about “do not exercise for 12 hours after donating.”

    • Shannon Perich
    • I was sitting at my desk on the 5th floor of NMAH. I had spent the morning looking at Sept 11 Pentagon pictures. Though my first thoughts were, “not again,” the lack of a sound moved my thoughts to construction. Then I rationalized that the garage contruction surely couldn’t make THAT sort of sustatained vibration. Finally, “earthquake” registered, but it seemed to take a relatively long time to figure it out!

    • Erin
    • I was in the Postal Museum’s Railway Post Office train car.

      After things stopped rumbling, I stepped into the museum atrium. We have three airmail planes hanging from the ceiling. The Stinson-Reliant, probably the heaviest of the three, was swaying from side to side and kept doing that for quite a while afterwards.

    • Maria del Carmen Cossu
    • I was enjoying lunch outdoors at the NGA Sculpture Garden with friends from NSRC and NASM. At first I felt the ground moving…I thought it was the metro underground, then it felt stronger…I told my friends that this was an earthquake, we were convinced once we saw the Roxy Paine’s tree-like sculpture shaking, we told the people around us that this was an earthquake, but they didn’t believe it … (I am from Peru and had experienced an 8.0 magnitude earthquake in August of 2007 in Lima.) I was shocked to experience an earthquake in this region!!! Now I want to learn more about the geology of the region.

    • Alex di Giovanni
    • Third floor of the Castle.
      I was at my desk when the rumbling began. My first thought was, “Yikes, whatever the hell you guys are doing upstairs, you better knock it off–sounds like the tower is coming down!” Not being a notoriously quick thinker, it took me a few moments to realize that it was an earthquake. Although I had been through several quakes in Japan, this one lasted long enough for me to begin to get nervous. “I am in an almost-200-year-old building directly underneath a clock tower and several turrets that probably weren’t built to sustain earthquakes. Hmmm. This could be a problem.”

    • LaKesha Sumpter
    • I was just finishing my lunch in OFMR break room located in NHB West basement…I felt my chair shaking and I asked the ladies did they feel that and they said no… as soon as they said no the entire ground and building began to shake and I ran to the door and said we are supposed to stand in a doorway. As I opened the door to stand in, I looked to the left and right and saw the other employees and I said lets get the h*ll out of here and the ladies followed me and we took the nearest exit and left the building. I couldn’t believe it but I knew it was an earthquake!!! Greatful that we all survived without any injuries!!

    • Sarah Zielinski
    • I’m the science blogger for Smithsonian magazine. I was sitting at my desk researching my next post–unlikely spots for earthquakes in the continental United States–which was inspired by the morning’s quakes in Colorado. When my desk began to shake, my brain said it was an earthquake but couldn’t quite believe the coincidence. DC is surely an unexpected spot for an earthquake.

    • Valerie Neal
    • My office in the Space History Division at NASM is directly above the IMAX theater, so I am accustomed to a few rumbles each day from shuttle launches and other thrills below my feet. As I sat at my computer on Tuesday afternoon, I noticed that the vibrations, unlike usual ones, were increasing in intensity. As quick attempts to figure out what that meant flitted through my mind, my bookshelves began to jitter, and I quickly rose, asking nearby colleagues, “Are we having an earthquake?” and heading to our shelter-in-place location. Iphones and Blackberries soon confirmed that the earth, not IMAX, had rattled us.

    • Patricia Trenner
    • 6th floor, Capital Gallery, 1:51 p.m. Tuesday:

      Building begins swaying to and fro. Earthquake! Where do I go?Under desk? Doorjamb? Swaying increases, books cascade off shelves, pictures fall from walls. Head toward stairwell exit. Legs quaking. Out at ground level. Sun shining, sky serene, clouds saying “What are you looking at ME for? I didn’t do it!”

    • Terri White
    • I was at the National Mall Building of the Air and Space Museum, in Gallery 211– our art gallery. I was discussing with a coworker what I should have for lunch that day, when suddenly there was loud thunderous noise, flickering lights, and shaking walls. It felt like something out of a movie! Amazingly, visitors didn’t seem phased at all and were either amused, confused, or angry about being asked to clear galleries and head to the lower level. I helped clear the immediate area I was in and then stood at the bottom of the stairs to help stop visitors from sneaking back upstairs while officers did their official clearing and checking. After a few minutes of that, I went out and picked up lunch and saw what seemed to be every Federal employee in the area just standing around. Metro was closed off, but the food trucks had a booming business day! I returned to the museum, and saw a Pac-Man reenactment across Independence Avenue, and heard that as best we knew we were the only museum still open. I went back upstairs and began eating lunch, trying to text, Tweet, and call friends and family in NYC and Pittsburgh only to find out from another co-worker that we would be closing afterall, and that staff would probably be sent home the rest of the day (we were). To avoid the disaster that was Metro at the moment, I walked up to Chinatown and went to the movies (to see Harry Potter 7.2 again) and hoped that the time spent in there would help calm down the traffic and metro congestion (it did).

    • Pherabe Kolb
    • I was in a meeting in the Smithsonian Castle with a number of museum directors and senior staff. When it became clear that this was an earthquake (I had never experienced one before), we dove under the conference table and waited for the shaking to stop. Was quite an experience seeing all those powerful people ducked under there!

    • Karen Keller
    • I was on my way to a meeting and walking next to the fountain on sub-level 3 of the National Museum of Afrian Art when I started hearing the rumbling and feeling the shaking and the water in the fountain started rippling. I thought something had hit the building or a large object had fallen. There was no one else around me so I (stupidly) got on the elevator and went to the ground level. At that point the alarms started sounding and and people were quickly leaving the building. I continued to head to the Castle for my meeting until I heard that it was actualy an earthquake and saw that everyone was pouring out of the buildings and heading for safety on the Mall.

    • Kelly Shockey
    • For the sake of getting my security clearance, I was in the process of getting a polygraph. I was hooked up to the machine, so very close to the finish, when the shaking peaked. At first I was worried, then when the officer came over to unstrap me, so we could evacuate the 4th story office from the equipment, I just had to laugh.

    • Paul Griffith
    • I coordinate the Moving Beyond Earth gallery in the Air and Space Museum on the Mall, and was in that gallery. I was leaning against the stage when I felt the rumbling. Thought it might be construction. Then it got big, and I ran like heck. Dave Heck, specifically. I walked home to SW, so no change in my commute, except for a lot of honking cars.