DLA employee recalls 2011 earthquake that rocked the McNamara Headquarters Complex

By Beth Reece

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The White House and U.S. Capitol were evacuated seconds after a rare 5.8-magnitude earthquake rocked the East Coast in August 2011. At the Pentagon, a burst pipe flooded two corridors. The quake also cracked the top of the Washington Monument, and a 350-pound finial fell 20 stories from a tower of the Washington National Cathedral. 

Sitting in her ground floor office at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, Linda Adams was chatting with her boss when the room began to vibrate. The Defense Logistics Agency Information Operations management analyst had grown used to the telltale sign of a truck driving by the McNamara Headquarters Complex. But then it got violent. 

“It started as just a shake back and forth and suddenly felt like an angry movement. It was scary even though I’d been in earthquakes before,” she said. 

Adams grew up in southern California with regular earthquake drills in school, so her instincts were strong. While others scrambled to get out of the building or shrugged and went back to work, she curled up under her desk and put her hands on the back of her neck. 

“I could hear some people running around in panic wondering what to do. If you haven’t practiced and don’t know how to react, the first instinct is to run outside or get out of the building,” she said. 

According to www.shakeout.org, federal, state and local emergency management experts agree that “Drop, Cover and Hold On” guidelines reduce injury and prevent death during earthquakes. Studies show people are more likely to be injured by falling or flying objects than die in a collapsed building. 

“While images of collapsed structures in earthquakes around the world are frightening and get the most attention from the media, most buildings do not collapse at all, and few completely collapse,” the website states, adding that the open space under a desk or other structure is likely to remain even if the building collapses. Debris falling from buildings’ outer exterior is another reason to remain inside, Adams learned as a child. Chimneys crumple, for example, because they’re made of brick, which break instead of bending. 

September is National Preparedness Month and this year’s theme is Prepared Not Scared. The event encourages Americans to conduct safety drills and create plans for protecting themselves during emergencies like natural disasters and terrorism at home, work and school. Though it’s easy to have a blasé approach toward preparing for events that don’t seem likely to occur, the 2011 earthquake is proof anything can happen, Adams said.

“I understand training can be dull and uninteresting, but there’s a reason why we do it. Fear makes us do a lot of dumb things, and you’ll run into danger or accidentally put yourself in a position where you’ll get hurt if you don’t automatically know which door to get out of or if you should stay put,” she continued.

Being able to account for others is also key to helping first responders conduct lifesaving rescues. As a fire marshal responsible for taking roll at her co-workers’ designated rally point after evacuation, Adams learned the value of alphabetical rosters.

“The roster we had grouped employees in organizational order with senior supervisors on down. Since then, we created an alphabetical roster so it’s easier to find people’s names,” she said.

Practicing employees’ response to emergency scenarios is a lot like Army training, added Adams, a former soldier.

“In the military, we train on how to react when bullets are flying at us so we can get past the high emotional impact and automatically take the steps to get to safety,” she said. “A perfect example of why it’s important to know exactly what to do in an emergency is the fact that every time we have a fire drill, people tend to head toward the doors they came into for work rather than emergency exits, which will get them out faster.”

Tips for preparing for an earthquake and keeping safe afterward are available at www.ready.gov/earthquakes. A list of disasters likely to occur in specific areas and steps for preparing for them are available at www.ready.gov/make-a-plan.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of National Preparedness Month articles about Defense Logistics Agency employees who’ve experienced a natural disaster.