August 24, 2011 by Rich Cooper

I’m back in my office building after the great DC Shake of 2011. The earthquake that struck Virginia and surrounding areas was a surreal experience, one I’ve never had and one I don’t care to repeat any time soon. While escorting a guest to the fifth-floor elevators in U.S. Chamber of Commerce building, there was a slight shake. The guest I was with was talking about flight experiences in the Atlanta airport, and I remember looking at him as the floor was slightly moving and thinking, “Well, that’s weird.”

Then the shaking picked up dramatically, and I thought, “Car bomb.” Working a block from the White House will give you thoughts like that, but when I heard no sound or other glass shattering concussion, I knew something else was amiss.

Was it the construction on the 3rd floor? Was it the construction on the building next door?

Before I could figure out what it was, three people ran by me heading for the stairwell with one saying, “Get the hell out of here!”

Following quickly behind her were several other people I work with who had grabbed their purses, cell phones, backpacks or whatever they could get a hold of and took off for the stairwell. Going down the stairs, people started to enter into the stairwell from the other floors, all calmly and without stampeding others in front of them but still moving at a brisk pace.

As unfunny as the unfolding situation was in the building (because we didn’t know what was happening), I couldn’t help but think of all the women in the building who wear towering (and expensive) heels that look absolutely great but are not built for quick movement in a stairwell. Fortunately, no one took a spill, and everyone calmly got out of the building and onto DC’s sidewalks.

Everything outside seemed to have an eerie calm about it. The day was one of those rare DC summer days when the sky was blue; it was not humid, and the air was not choked with smog and stink. Frankly, it was gorgeous. One colleague remarked as we walked towards our rendezvous point, “Kinda reminds you of September 11th doesn’t it?”

Our building seemed to be one of the first to empty out because the Farragut Square park was not filled with people. Over the next couple of minutes, more buildings started to empty out onto the sidewalks. Everyone was reaching for their cell phones to see what was happening. At that point, emergency bulletins had not appeared on our phones but someone finally said, “It was an earthquake! It was 5.8!”

With that announcement, we tried to reach loved ones via phone and text to let them know we were OK and to make sure others were too. And an utterly unshocking thing happened – calls could not get out.

Another colleague said, “This is just like 9/11 when the phones didn’t work.”

I encouraged folks around me to try to send text messages to see if they could get out. Fortunately for me, texts to my wife and parents did get out, but in the midst of discovering which communication methods did and did not work came the discovery that the one platform that had no problem in getting and receiving information was Facebook!

It lit up like a Christmas tree with news bulletins and messages from friends checking in on me and reporting what they experienced. It had everything from the serious to hilarious.

Say what you will about the medium of Facebook and social media, it worked in this environment. It gave people a security blanket of sorts that they could “post” what was happening with them and around them. I know a lot of emergency managers who swear by it, swear at it, and swear they will never use it, but it worked. In an emergency, that is all that matters.

As all of this was happening, people urgently (but not frantically) were trying to make calls to loved ones while those of us who subscribe to emergency alerts from regional outlets started to get more information and share it.

Some of the people around me received phone calls came from places like Miami and elsewhere. With each of those calls, one could sense the relief those people could find in hearing a voice from afar. For others still trying to figure out how they could reach a loved one via a phone system that was overrun with calls, their anxiety was only building.

As the banter amongst friends and colleagues continued on a gorgeous and thoroughly unprecedented DC day, the attitude turned from shock to one of, “So what should we do now?”

Somebody said, “Let’s go to the bar.” Another said, “I think I’m going to go get a bike and get home.”

Whatever people decided to do, if there was ever an environment for something like this to occur, having a gorgeous summer day for people to calmly mill about after Washington swiftly moved back and forth a few times (and that the White House, Congress and Supreme Court had nothing to do with) was a blessing in disguise. It was you might say “unprecedented.”

For the tour busses filled with end-of-summer tourists that passed us by, they got a great opportunity to photograph people in Washington doing something that you rarely see. They were being nice to each other, comforting those who were scared by the experience while sharing cell phones, Blackberries and other news and information to keep everyone apprised of what was happening. I even noted some smiles and laughter in the crowd.

While there is nothing funny about the scare that shook us all, I have to say I’m proud of the people in my building for knowing what to do and doing it without panic, as well as the surrounding buildings for replicating the same behavior. Lately, there have not been many days where behavior in the Nation’s Capital inspired pride, but on that day I was. It’s interesting that it took the Earth to shake to give me that feeling. While I don’t want the Earth to move for me any time soon, I’d like to hold onto that feeling for a while. It was an enjoyable aftershock.

Originally posted in Security Debrief.


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