The 5.8-magnitude earthquake in Virginia on Tuesday showed us that evacuating during an emergency could tax the city’s resources — and be decidedly complex and slow.
Buildings in Boston were evacuated, while witnesses said the quake was felt as far away as Toronto. In New York, many office buildings were evacuated. The Capitol Building was also evacuated after the quake struck. Pictures hanging on the walls at the Capitol reportedly fell to the floor from the shocks.
The 5.8 magnitude earthquake brought panic to the Pentagon and the White House, and sparked fears that the iconic Washington Monument would fall.
As ripples from the tremor hit Washington and New York, city streets across the coast were filled with thousands of people hauled out of buildings for fear they could collapse.
Traffic was snarled for miles in downtown Washington as employers released workers early at the same time and thousands of commuters tried to drive home or cram onto trains already overloaded and slowed by speed restrictions because of the quake. Rush hour began several hours early throughout the city, and several extra frustrations — malfunctioning traffic lights, blocked-off streets — added to the commuting headache.
“Not that yesterday was chaos, but definitely, it was not as smooth as it could have been,” said Justin Thorp, 27, a marketing manager who works downtown and who escaped the congestion with a bicycle he found through a bike-sharing program.
No mandatory evacuation order followed the earthquake, which isn’t surprising given the sporadic and relatively minor damage the region sustained.
Very few circumstances would trigger a mandatory exodus of the entire city, said David Robertson, executive director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, an organization of Washington-area local governments.
Nonetheless, many office buildings, government agencies and other businesses emptied on their own, setting off an early rush hour.
It’s natural to want to leave a building during an earthquake. After all, who wants to be in a building that crumbles to the ground? This fear, however, drove people into the streets and sidewalks, and ironically enough, into perhaps the most dangerous place of all. As FEMA explains:
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.
Here are some pointers from FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency if you are caught in a major earthquake:
If You’re Indoors:
- Drop to the ground and take cover. Get under a sturdy table or other piece of furniture, and hold on until the shaking stops.
- If you can’t get under something, cover your face and head with your hands and crouch in an inside corner.
If You’re Outdoors
- Stay there. Stay away from buildings, power lines, streetlights and other things that could fall on you.
- People are rarely injured by the actual shaking of an earthquake. Instead, falling debris is the greater danger.
- If you’re in a car, try to ease to a stop, preferably in an open area away from buildings, trees or overpasses.