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

Just after 1 p.m. on an idle Tuesday summer afternoon, Sara Sankey was returning to her Germantown home with her family.

Sankey had just undergone heart surgery at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, and her family was ready to tend to her as her recovery continued.

Down the road in the District, Tangerine Washington was going through the motions on a reasonably busy day of work at a Connecticut Avenue bank.

Meanwhile, Louisa County Schools Superintendent Deborah Pettit was on one of her many visits to the county's only high school and her Alma Mater.

At 1:51 p.m. that day, Aug. 23, 2011, Sankey, Washington, Pettit and millions of others across the Mid-Atlantic and East Coast collectively experienced something the majority of them had never felt.

The ground shook.

For a matter of seconds that for many seemed like an eternity, buildings swayed, items fell off walls, and the ground, for those brief moments, rattled and rolled under Virginia and the Mid-Atlantic in a way that hadn’t been felt in a century.

The quake that shook the ground…and nerves

By definition, the magnitude-5.8 earthquake that shook the East Coast on Aug. 23, 2011 had an epicenter five miles south southwest of Mineral and the heart of Louisa County.

It struck about 3.7 miles below the surface of the Earth, and according to the tens of thousands of reports the United States Geological Society received, it was felt in such faraway locales as Maine, Georgia, Montreal, Detroit and Chicago.

For those in the D.C. area who weren’t necessarily the most seasoned earthquake veterans, it was simply defined as several moments of terror.

“(I) heard dogs in the distance start howling. Then it sounded like a train coming,” Jim Ball, a Fairfax County resident, said in the aftermath of the quake. “It started to get worse, (the) porch table started shaking, the house windows started rattling and the chimney started to sway.”

Reports began to pour in from across the area, with buildings swaying and windows breaking from Baltimore all the way down to the epicenter and beyond.

“The whole building shook,” AOL employee Jake Thiewes said in a tweet just after the earthquake. “(The) lights and HVAC in the ceiling were super wobbly.”

On the National Mall and in buildings throughout the area, people poured into the streets looking for any information they could find, with many not even knowing that what they experienced had been an earthquake.

Little did they know just how much those few seconds of shaking had done.

Major Virginia earthquakes are few and (very) far between

Virginia is not California. It's not Alaska, nor is it Japan when it comes to a history of seismic activity. In fact, the USGS's website lists just four events in the Commonwealth's section on "historic earthquakes."

Of those four, two of them measure below magnitude 5.0, and the largest - a 5.9 earthquake that hit Giles County in 1897 - is just one-tenth of a point higher on the Richter scale as the August 2011 quake.

That said, it's not as if earthquakes, by and large, are rare in the Mid-Atlantic on their own. The vast majority of them, geophysicists say, just can't be felt by humans.

"There are fault lines virtually everywhere," USGS geophysicist John Bellini says. “Central Virginia has had small quakes from time-to-time in recent recorded history.”

Bellini, who works out of the agency’s National Earthquake Information Center in Colorado, says that despite the moderate amount of seismic activity in the Mid-Atlantic, the 2011 quake that struck in Louisa County was “uncommon.”

“The 5.8 is rare for the East Coast,” he said. “Smaller quakes do happen infrequently, but regularly. This was nearly unheard of.”

Virginia’s largest quake since the 19th Century

According to USGS records, the only comparable earthquake to the 2011 temblor to hit Virginia shook the ground on May 31, 1897. That quake was felt throughout the region and caused “many downed chimneys” and cracks to brick homes.

In modern recorded history, though, which according to Bellini started at about the turn of the 20th century, the 2011 Louisa County quake is virtually unmatched.

“About a half-dozen quakes in the east and northeast were in the upper 5 to lower 6 magnitude, but the only way to estimate that was by their effects,” he says.

What didn’t surprise most experts was the amount of damage the quake caused and how widely it was felt across the East Coast. Bellini says that the Earth’s crust under the East Coast doesn’t absorb as much shock as the land under the highly seismically-active West Coast, allowing lesser shockwaves to travel further.

That’s why the 5.8 earthquake, which was felt very strongly in Virginia and Washington, was felt to some degree as far away as the Deep South and southeastern Canada.

The damage emerges, especially in Louisa County

The quake left plenty of superficial damage throughout the D.C. area; pictures were knocked off walls, products spilled off of shelves and into the aisles of numerous stores and, in Culpeper and closer to the epicenter, facades collapsed and bricks were strewn about.

But, by and large, the District and its immediate suburbs were spared the kind of widespread damage that is all-too-common after earthquakes of that size.

For Deborah Pettit and the six schools she oversees in Louisa County, it continues to be a totally different story, but it’s one dominated by optimism and a community that rallied together to recover. Two years on, the resilient community continues to rebuild and push forward.

“We, as a county, are very grateful for all the help we’ve received,” Superintendent Pettit says. “We said, ‘We can do this because people are really pulling together. We can do this together.”

Two of the county’s schools, Thomas Jefferson Elementary and Louisa County High, had to be demolished in the aftermath of the quake due to the millions of dollars in damage sustained to both buildings.

Within three weeks of the quake, though, students were back in classes in mobile classrooms, and while it wasn’t necessarily normal or optimal – many students were on an alternate-day schedule for months – it was the support of parents, students and staff that made it work.

“We made up that time with longer school days and the alternate-day schedule,” Pruitt said. “All of that worked out well because our families and the community supported us in that.

“Two years later, I can look back and say, ‘Wow, look at what we’ve done to recover.'”

Pettit is a native of Louisa County and a graduate of the county’s high school. She describes her neck of the woods as rural and close-knit, a quality she says accelerated the healing and recovery process after the earthquake.

In the immediate aftermath of the quake, the community held fundraisers while they cleaned up their own homes. Several local businesses stepped up to provide space for displaced classes and extracurricular activities.

“A local Ford dealer gave us use of one of their garage bays so that our Auto Mechanics class could get their hands-on training,” Pettit said. “A local hair salon gave us use of their area for cosmetology students. Local gyms at churches pitched in.

“Despite all of us losing things that were precious, or having our homes messed up, parents were so supportive. They wanted their kids to get back to school. That’s a feeling that propels you forward.”

Propelling forward is something that Louisa County continues to do. Last year, the county broke ground on a new Thomas Jefferson Elementary campus, and on Wednesday, state, local and national leaders gathered to start the work on a new Louisa County High School.

"We are Louisa, and great things are what we do," Virginia State Sen. Tom Garrett, a 1990 graduate of Louisa County High, said Wednesday at the groundbreaking.

Not even a passing downpour could dampen the spirits at the groundbreaking, which Pettit said was simply jubilant.

“We don’t let little things get in our way,” she said. “A little rain won’t stop us.”

Jefferson Elementary's new campus is slated to open next August, Pettit says, while the new high school will be open for students by August of 2015.

“I’m very proud of Louisa,” Pettit says.

Next page: Sankey's family rushes her out, scaffolding encases a damaged monument, Metro slows way, way down and Louisa County begins to rebuild.

"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