Wilson column: Rumblings from Washington D.C.

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 24, 2011

By Amanda Wilson
For the Salisbury Post
When the trembling began in Washington, D.C, just before 2 Tuesday afternoon, I was on the telephone conducting an interview with someone in an office building three blocks away.
As my chair began to shake beneath me, I asked the investigator with a non-partisan government watchdog who was on the phone with me, “Is your building shaking?” Silence. More trembling.
“Yeah,” he said, astonished, and the tone of his voice rose quickly in pitch.
The shaking did not last much longer than the time it took for me to quickly say I had to go. The telephone receiver fell from my hands and jiltingly back into place. I was on the 12th floor of the National Press Building on 14th street Northwest, two blocks from the White House.
The shudders were uneven and lurching and for a moment I had the sensation that I was sitting in a seat with no seatbelt on a cargo airplane landing somewhere on a rough, abandoned runway with broken pavement.
“What was that?” I asked my boss as the trembling slowed.
My body continued to shake as stress response hormones filtered through my system. Although I had heard about earthquakes all my life, read about them, seen videos of them, and knew the word in several languages — földrengés (Hungarian), terremoto (Italian) — my mind couldn’t immediately grasp what was happening. I had never experienced an earthquake.
My boss sat calmly in his chair. A veteran D.C. journalist from Seattle who went to school in Berkeley, Calif., a hotbed of seismic activity, he quickly identified the trembling as an earthquake. Grabbing my bag, I quickly decided to leave my office on the 12th floor and leave the building.
“You’re not coming?” I asked my boss, as I abruptly retreated toward the door.
He said he wasn’t and turned back to his computer screen. I headed for the stairs as a weak siren wailed faintly at the other end of a long corridor. People trundled down the staircase toward the ground floor, circling down, down, picking up more people along the way.
Outside the day was bright and sunny. A woman standing outside asked her coworkers if she should go home to check on her children. She wondered out loud, her thoughts shifting between worrying about her children and her broken computer upstairs in the building, now closed to us.
“I have a computer repairman coming today,” she kept repeating. “Is he going to come?”
A man in a suit who said he worked for a nearby hotel said people should head for open spaces; that those were the emergency plans. I listened to his warning and fell in line with a crowd headed toward a park nearby. Some people were able to make calls on their cellular phones, others were not. My phone did not work. After 30 minutes of waiting — buildings stood solid in their places — I slowly walked back toward the office building. Cars were moving slowly in the streets and crowds of tourists and businesspeople chattered all around me about the earthquake.
Outside the office building, minutes turned into what seemed like an hour. I milled around in boredom, chatting with other people waiting to get back inside. Passersby seemed to move with more intention as more time passed without major catastrophe and people realized they could take the rest of the day off with impunity.
I chatted with another woman, a CEO of a media startup, who had left her wallet in the building and was waiting to get back inside. The liquor store next to the building had given her a free bottle of water on her promise that she would pay later. A cluster of journalists from East Asia were gathered around a video camera and speaking to each other in a language I thought might be Japanese. I asked them if they were from Japan, hoping they might have some words of advice or comfort about earthquakes, but they mostly seemed amused. They were actually from Korea.
“Do you know what number it was?” one asked me.
More than 3.0, I answered. I later found out that the earthquake was rated a 5.8 by the U.S. Geological Survey.
I bought a bottle of water and a candy bar at a little shop and huddled up next to the building. A man talking on a cellular phone looked at my candy bar hungrily. Right as the man seemed ready to attack my candy bar, security guards yelled that everyone could come back inside.
It was about 3:45, and I climbed the flight of stairs to the 12 floor. There in the office, my boss was still working at his computer. A colleague of mine who is originally from Washington was in class at American University and reported in an email: “They made us evacuate at AU…computers fell off desks here. You-all ok?”
I picked up the phone and dialed the man in the building three blocks away who I had hung up on earlier. I wanted to pick up where I had left off, to continue my day as if the earth had not shaken under me. An unfamiliar male voice answered. When I asked to speak with the man, the voice told me he had already gone home.
Amanda Wilson, originally from Salisbury, is working as a correspondent with Inter Press Service in Washington, DC.