5.8 Earthquake Shakes DC

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  • On August 23, 2011 at 1:51 PM, a 5.8 magnitude earthquake shook the Washington D.C. region. The quake, whose epicenter was in Mineral, Virginia, was felt up and down the east coast of the North America from the Carolinas to Canada. The Smithsonian Institution buildings were evacuated and staff were allowed to reenter once inspections were done. The museums on the National Mall were shut down and all non-essential staff (across the federal government) were sent home for the remainder of the afternoon.
  • In the aftermath of the earthquake, collections around the Smithsonian were deemed to be intact and secure. However, the Smithsonian Building or "Castle" closed for the remainder of the week and the Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland closed the following day. The "Castle" completed in 1855, sustained cracks to its beams and possibly in the foundation. Most of the damage was sustained in the East Wing of the building internally where plaster fell from the ceiling and the chimneys and decorative turrets on the roof were destablalized. There were some structural damage and the pipes that supply water to the sprinkler systems broke in many locations at the Museum Support Center; yet in spite of this, few artifacts were affected. Four engineering firms were hired to work with Smithsonian facilities personnel to assess the damages and secure them from further harm. All of the other Museum buildings and the National Zoo reopened to the public on August 24, 2011.
  • The National Zoological Park also felt the quake, but the animals knew something was awry even before the first tremor. According to keepers at the Zoo, the great apes climbed to the tops of their trees with their young seconds before the earth shook; small mammals such as the red ruffed lemurs began vocalizing warning calls fifteen minutes before the quake and again after the quake started; and the Zoo's flock of sixty-four flamingos rushed about and grouped together before the first shake was felt. Fortunately, no animals or Smithsonian staff were injured in the event.
  • The response was coordinated by Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough, a structural engineer and noted expert on earthquakes.


  • Smithsonian Institution
  • National Zoological Park (U.S.)


Chronology of Smithsonian History


  • "National Zoo Animals React to the Earthquake," National Zoological Park, Conservation Biology Institute, August 24, 2011, http://nationalzoo.si.edu/SCBI/AnimalCare/News/earthquake.cfm.
  • Jacqueline Trescott , "Smithsonian buildings closed and Secretary Clough talks about the tremors," Washington Post, August 23, 2011.
  • "Updates on Smithsonian Buildings," SI Email Announcements, August 24, 2011.
  • "Message from the Secretary: Smithsonian Earthquake Update," SI Email Announcements, August 25, 2011.

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20024-2520, SIHistory@si.edu


August 23, 2011


  • Closings
  • Earthquakes
  • Smithsonian Institution
  • Personnel management
  • Employees
  • Museums
  • Natural disasters
  • SI Buildings
  • Canada
  • North Carolina
  • Smithsonian Institution--Employees


  • North Carolina
  • Canada
  • Mall, The (Washington, D.C.)
  • Virginia
  • Maryland
  • Washington (D.C.)
  • South Carolina

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