Although no major structural damage was reported at the time, evidence of the 1:51 p.m. temblor – from fallen ceiling tiles at Union Station to chipped paint in the White House – could be found across the city.
The city’s law firms were all expected to be back at work Wednesday morning, based on reports from firm managers and attorneys. Several firms, such as Covington & Burling, closed for the remainder of the day, while others, such as McDermott Will & Emery and Hogan Lovells, reopened after a temporary evacuation.
Attorneys reached after the earthquake offered varying pictures of how firms responded. Hogan Lovells co-CEO J. Warren Gorrell Jr., said that staff evacuated after the building shook and the lights flickered, but were back at their desks soon after. Staff were free to get home to their families, he added.
Same went for attorneys at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, according to Cathleen Connelly, the firm’s director of administration for the Washington office. After about 30 to 40 minutes, Connelly said, the firm got the all-clear from building engineers to return.
Cozen O’Connor partner Bernie Grimm said that when the earthquake hit, he was "reading a Supreme Court opinion that was poorly written and had a bad result."
"I was looking for any distraction and I got one," he said. "Spent the next hour in Farragut Park on a perfect day. Unfortunately when I came back the opinion was still on my desk."
Covington & Burling closed for the day, although spokeswoman Rebecca Carr said she expected attorneys would telecommute from home later in the day.
David Schertler of Shertler & Onorato said that attorneys there "ran right out," leaving the office to regroup and calm down at a nearby restaurant.
A Justice Department spokeswoman said that following a temporary evacuation, everyone was back at work within about 20 minutes. The department’s Liberty Square building, which houses the antitrust and civil division attorneys, briefly was evacuated but attorneys were back at work within an hour.
Federal Trade Commission workers had the option of leaving early, but the agency’s historic Pennsylvania Avenue building (designed by Edward Bennett, with a cornerstone laid by President Franklin D. Roosevelt), "seems fine," according to an agency spokesman, and remained open for business.
The city’s local and federal courts were also expected to reopen in the morning. At the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse, a court official said the interior foot bridges connecting the original building and new annex would remain closed pending inspection from a structural engineer.
News reports placed the epicenter in a region northwest of Richmond, Va., but tremors could be felt along the East Coast, as far north as Maine and as far south as North Carolina. The Associated Press reported that a D.C. fire department spokesman said there were numerous injuries, but none initially serious.
Offices and government buildings were evacuated, sending thousands of workers onto the sidewalks and snarling the afternoon commute on the roads and public transit systems.
The city’s federal and local courts were emptied shortly after the earthquake hit and remained closed. At least two trials in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia were interrupted by the earthquake, but all cases were expected to resume as scheduled on Wednesday. D.C. Superior Court did stay open for adult arraignments and juvenile referrals.
On Capitol Hill, activity was already at a minimum because of the August recess, so the earthquake didn’t disrupt any hearings. The Senate, though, had been scheduled for a pro forma session at 2:30 p.m. The session was postponed.
Staff members said the Capitol building and all office buildings on the House and Senate sides were evacuated. Staff had not been allowed back in as of 3:20 p.m. Beth Levine, spokeswoman for Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said her office’s staff "all got out just fine."
Local law enforcement reported damage at several buildings. The Associated Press reported that at least three of the four pinnacles at the National Cathedral in Northwest Washington fell off and that a central tower appeared to be leaning.
This story was reported by Jenna Greene, Matthew Huisman, David Ingram, Andrew Ramonas, Mike Scarcella, Karen Sloan and Zoe Tillman.