DC at Night

DC at Night

Friday, August 23, 2013

Friday Flashback: Shaking All Over

It's another Friday so here is the latest in our ongoing feature in The Price Do DC called Friday Flashback. Each Friday we repost a story published earlier in our blog, which began in June of 2011. So, if you have read this post before, welcome back. If you are reading this for the 1st time, we hope you enjoy this post blast from our blog past.  Exactly 2 years ago today, the East Cost was rocked by an earthquake that was felt from North Carolina to Massachusetts. Here is our account of the rare, strange occurrence.

The earthquake damaged the Washington Monument.  This is how it looks now with construction underway. It is expected to be re-opened to the public some time next year.

An afternoon that began with a friendly education-exploring lunch with a former colleague, then continued with an unexpected, impromptu tour of a historic Black section of D.C., finally climaxed today with a once-in-a-lifetime East Coast Earthquake, which shook and shocked Washington area residents and left several historic treasures with structural damage.

Here's my detailed where-were-you-when the earthquake hit story.

When I first announced that I would be retiring from education and moving to Crystal City, Paul Smith, whom I had worked with as part of The Talent Development Program out of Johns Hopkins University, contacted me, asking if I would like to join him as a consultant to a whole school reform program he would be handling at Dunbar High School in D.C.

To be honest, I had mixed feelings about the project. One part of me simply wanted to enjoy my retirement. But another part was intrigued with being able to work with a problem-plagued, big city urban school like Dunbar. Paul and I stayed in touch through the summer, but were unable to get together because of my moving and travel schedule.  Finally, with school starting, we were able to coordinate schedules and plan a lunch at The Big Bear Cafe, a counter culture establishment on First Street.

I traveled by Metro to the nearest station to the cafe, and, since I was really early, decided to walk to Dunbar to check it out before proceeding on to lunch. After passing through the school's metal detector, I was directed to the office. As I was explaining my purpose in visiting to a secretary, I was approached by a nattily dressed man (at least nattily dressed by my South Jersey school standards) who offered his hand and introduced himself as school principal Steven Jackson. Somehow, from reading about Jackson both online and in the Michelle Rhee biography The Bee Eater, I expected someone larger in statue. But it was clear from his demeanor that Jackson was definitely in charge of his building. In a friendly, yet forceful way, he wanted to know what this visitor was doing in Dunbar.  I briefly explained my connection to Paul Smith, adding that I might be working here. Apparently satisfied with my explanation, he politely dismissed himself and returned to the open-door meeting his was having with 3 colleagues in his office.

After a brief discussion with the security guard manning the screening system, I left Dunbar and resumed walking the 4 remaining blocks to the Black Bear Cafe. There I was joined by Paul and we enjoyed an hour lunch with the time equally divided between catching up on the past couple of years and discussing the plans for Dunbar. Although we reached no definite conclusion about my involvement, I told Paul I was definitely interested and he promised to get back to me with a yes or no as soon as funding plans were finalized. (For those interested in financial aspects, I asked for $17.4 million a day and Paul was pretty convinced that might cause a stumbling block).

Paul left for a meeting at Dunbar and I decided to explore new areas of  DC by walking up Florida Avenue to a different Metro station. After about 4 blocks, I stopped to look at restoration work on a brightly painted Victorian row home and suddenly was joined by Bill, who described himself as a sort of informal historian of the area. "That's pretty incredible, what they're doing," said Bill, who explained that he was born in DC and, after extensively traveling the US and turning 50 years old, he had come back to live here. I explained that I had just moved to DC and was trying to learn all I could about the area.  "Oh, I could bore you for hours with that stuff," Bill said. And so Bill launched into a fascinating neighborhood history lesson.

"See that gate over there," Bill said. "That's LeDroit Park. It was a private guarded gated community back in the 1870s.  No one who didn't live there could get in.  The people got tired of having to walk around it and finally got it opened up.  Then it became an exclusive area for Black residents. Jesse Jackson has a home at 4th and T.  And Walter Washington, the first elected mayor has a home there, too."

Continuing our tour up the street, Bill pointed out work on 2 theaters.  "That there is the Howard," he said, "Everybody played there. Duke Ellington, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder. And that one over there is the Dunbar.

And so, for the next 20 minutes, Bill regaled me with inside stories about the historic Shaw Neighborhood - Ben's Chili Bowl, Howard University, and the whole U Street Corridor. Finally, Bill said he was heading for lunch and prepared to duck into a local Ethiopian Eatery. I thanked him for all his information and told him I might continue my walk all the way back to the Capitol. "Hmm. I wouldn't do that. There's a few rough streets that way,"he said.

"Just cut down that road," he said, pointing to direction. "Turn left and you'll come to the Shaw-Howard Metro Station.  That's a direct line to Crystal City."

On the Metro ride home, I had time to reflect on just how much fascinating hidden history there is in DC and how grateful I was to have outgoing, local "historians" like Bill around to clue me in.

Getting off the metro at my Crystal City stop, I decided to run an errand in the Crystal City Underground. And that's where I was when I encountered the great Eastern Earthquake (although I must admit, at the time, I had absolutely no idea what was happening).

As I was headed to the underground Rite-Aid, I experienced what I first believed was a large scale explosion, followed by shaking. At first, I thought given my proximity to the Metro, that a train had derailed. But when the shaking resumed, I quickly considered and dismissed the idea of a bomb. But any consideration of what exactly was happening was quickly replaced by 1 thought - I wanted to get out of that underground and out on the street. The next few seconds were a blur.  I remember the startled face of a Vietnamese hairdresser as she exited her shop and stared at me quizzically as bottles of beauty products tumbled from the shelves behind her. I remember 2 well-dressed black women who kept pace with my brisk walk, all the while struggling to comprehend our circumstances. "Oh My God. What do you think it is? What's happening?," they cried. I remember 2 guys imploring me to forgo my hasty exit and join them under the archway of their store door.   

Somehow, I restrained myself from running (maybe it was a false sense of Steve McQueen cool) and just kept up my brisk walk until I was able to jerk open the door to the street, where I joined thousands of Crystal City workers and lunch-goers who were already outside, trying to come to grips with the situation.

Obviously, my 1st thought was to get in contact with my wife Judy, who I had left back in our apartment about 4 hours ago. I dialed my home number on my cell and got - nothing.  Looking around, I saw that everyone else had their cells out and intuited that the phone system must be overwhelmed. So, still trying unsuccessfully to dial, I began the 4 and 1/2 block walk to our Crystal Plaza Apartment Complex.

On my walk, I found that my eavesdropping skills, honed during my 10 years as a reporter, came in handy. "Earthquake ... 5.9... all the way to North Carolina... did Bill and Julie get out? ... that's right an earthquake ... aren't there after shocks ... we'll just have to go back in later and get your purse ... I hope the kids are OK ... hey, hey get away from the windows ... no, we'll open back up, we're always open ... Well, I'm going over there, the bar looks open and I need a stiff drink ... where are the police and firemen? ... they'll let us know when we can go back in ... no I don't know if they'll let us go home"

I reached our apartment complex and found Judy outside with the rest of our neighbors who had been home at the time of the disturbance.  And, of course, Judy had her own earthquake tale to tell.  She had been ironing when she heard the apartment door shaking. "At first, I thought you had come home and couldn't get in the door," she said.  But when the whole 7th floor apartment started swaying and several statues plummeted from the top of our 6-shelf bookcase, she quickly realized there was something more dramatic in play than a klutzy husband. "The TV was really rocking and I rushed to grab and steady it," she said. "Then I went out on the balcony to find out what was going on. The concierges were outside.  They were really upset and hollered for all us to come down outside." 

Finally, we were given the OK to re-enter our complex and we threw ourselves in front of the TV (which, thanks to Judy's quick action, was safe and still working - I knew there was a reason why I love that woman) to find out exactly how an earthquake had found its way to DC to shake up our afternoon and that of most of the Eastern seaboard.

Travelers Tip:
I guess this incident and its aftermath again proved that, despite all our technological advances,  Nature still has mysterious forces we must always respect as we struggle to reckon with them.

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