Standing across the street from the Pentagon when a highly unusual 5.9 earthquake hit the region, The Diplomat’s Washington DC Correspondent Eddie Walsh reports on the situation on the ground.
It was clear that something significant had occurred. For a few seconds, we could literally feel the earth moving under our feet.
In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, US federal buildings, residential apartments, and commercial offices in the area cleared into the streets in the vicinity of the Pentagon. I’m an accredited press member at the Pentagon, but was across the street having lunch at the time so haven’t been able to confirm if the Pentagon was officially evacuated. However, it was clear that many have evacuated the building.
From my vantage point across the street, I saw four police cars and two fire trucks rushing past The Fashion Center at Pentagon City, a large mall complex across from the Pentagon, in the moments following the earthquake. It was unclear what they were responding to, as most were headed away from the Pentagon toward Crystal City.
Although some recalled the September 11 attacks, I saw no signs of panic, with most of the evacuees aware from news sources that it was in fact an earthquake. In fact, I even saw a businessman in a suit light-heartedly join a recreational soccer player on a nearby soccer pitch and shoot a few shots on goal – to the amusement of some of the evacuees.
The most immediate issue afflicting people in the area has been cell phone service, and there have been widespread disruptions in service in the area. The streets and surrounding parks still have groups of people who are worried about aftershocks and are therefore remaining outdoors. However, many of the evacuees have returned to their buildings in the area immediately surrounding the mall complex.
At this time, calm seems to be returning to the area despite continuous emergency vehicle sirens in the distance. A construction crew across from the Pentagon has even returned to work. I’ll keep you posted if there are any more developments.
Update 1 from The Diplomat security analyst Richard Weitz:
The Pentagon and many other federal buildings have officially closed early so that people could examine the buildings before resuming normal operations in them.
When the quake occurred I was on Capitol Hill giving a TV interview. The shaking ended fairly rapidly and was certainly less severe than those I experienced during my year in the LA area. Still they asked us to leave the building and not return.
I was at the Pentagon on 9/11 and this occasion saw no panic, just confusion over what to do since there had been little advanced warning or planning for such an event.
And this was certainly less of a problem than the winter two years ago, when the entire city shut down for a week and I spent several nights sleeping in the office.
Update 2, Eddie Walsh
A senior administration told me the following: At 2:50 p.m. EDT this afternoon, the President led a conference call with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Homeland Security Advisor John Brennan, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, Senior Science Advisor for Earthquake and Geologic Hazards with the Department of Interior Dr. David Applegate, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Greg Jaczko, Deputy Homeland Security Advisor Heidi Avery, and Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough to discuss the earthquake and status of critical infrastructure. The President was told that there are no initial reports of major infrastructure damage, including at airports and nuclear facilities, and that there were currently no requests for assistance.
Update 3, Eddie Walsh
I just finished speaking with Defence Press Relations at the Pentagon. The public affairs officer responsible for communications regarding the building confirmed that the evacuation I reported earlier wasn’t mandatory, but that many employees chose to evacuate voluntarily. Furthermore, building damage was limited to a broken chilled water pipe, reportedly on the fifth floor of the fourth corridor in A ring. As a result of the leak, there is water damage from the fifth floor as well as the floors below. The pipe reportedly is no longer leaking though. According to the PAO, there are no other reports of damage at other Department of Defence facilities at this time. The PAO was unable to answer why two Pentagon badged police cars were seen speeding from the Pentagon with lights and sirens on approximately fifteen minutes after the earthquake. The PAO assumed they were headed to one of the other Department of Defence facilities for which they are responsible in the area. Finally, the PAO believes that the Pentagon suffered little damage for two primary reasons: 1) the facility is a reinforced building that minimizes such damage; 2) the facility recently was completed renovated under a 20-year project called the Pentagon Renovation Program (PENREN) that brings it up to modern safety standards.