The Tragic Virginia Earthquake

Tara Randall

A Bomb in the White House?

“I thought a bomb had gone off in the White House, and as my fellow co-workers scrambled around the room to find shelter, my second thought was, could this be an earthquake?” Erika Freihage-Randall, my mother, was attending a business meeting in Washington D.C., near her childhood home in the greater D.C. area. On August 23, 2011, Erika and her colleagues were discussing university curriculum as the ground shook with a rumbling force. With a magnitude of 5.8, the Virginia earthquake struck 37 miles northwest of Richmond, Virginia's capital. The quake could be felt as far south as Atlanta, GA; as far west as Illinois, as far north as Quebec City, Quebec, Canada; and as far east as New Brunswick. This earthquake occurred along the ancient Spotsylvania fault.


Erika had lived in Southern California for 13 years and had never experienced a major earthquake. She had moved to So Cal in 1998, and the major Northridge quake was in 1994. At 1:51pm, Erika was sitting in one of the meeting rooms on the first floor at the historic Churchiil Hotel, just one and half blocks from the White House. When the earthquake hit, Erika’s colleagues all assumed the shaking was a bomb the terrorist had set off in the White House, given that this was nearly 10 years after the attacks on September 11, 2001.


Once everyone figured out that it was an earthquake and not terrorism, they headed for the protection of the tables to prevent anyone from getting hurt. Shortly after, some staff from the hotel came and told them to evacuate the building, given that it was built in 1906, because they thought it may start to collapse. In the end, there was no damage done to the hotel, but when Erika did head out onto the streets, she could see that shops and other buildings had been greatly damaged. In fact, the damage spread as far north as New Jersey. The Washington Monument was heavily damaged with more than 150 cracks in its tall structure. It had to be closed to tourists. The Monument wasn’t officially reopened until May 2014; it took 32 months for the tower to be fixed. In addition, Union Station and the National Cathedral had taken quite a beating during the earthquake.


After the quake, Erika felt relieved that she was able to evacuate the building safely. During the earthquake, she felt surprised that she was experiencing her biggest earthquake in DC rather than in So Cal, especially since DC is a very uncommon place for earthquakes to occur. Since this area is very uncommon for earthquakes, it was the largest recorded earthquake that was east of the Rockies in the last 114 years.


After experiencing a rather large earthquake, Erika suggests that you stay calm and find cover under a sturdy piece of furniture during an earthquake. Also, always be prepared for an earthquake by keeping an emergency supply kit that is updated in your house. Always be ready for an earthquake whenever it will occur!