Shake, Rattle and Roll On

Tuesday’s Virginia earthquake again tested the nation’s infrastructure, which came through pretty well. But it also reminded us of vulnerabilities.

Rail systems for freight operators and commuters alike slowed, as inspectors checked the tracks and circuits. Some air operations paused, a nuclear power plant shut down, and roadways quickly clogged around Washington, D.C., and other major East Coast metro areas that emptied their high-rise buildings of workers.

Damage assessments are wrapping up this morning, but with a few exceptions the East is getting back to normal after one shaky afternoon and evening. The tremor was felt from Atlanta to Montreal, in a reminder of the earth’s power, and brought quite a mental adjustment for those of us in its immediate zone who have come to think of earthquakes as something far away.

Norfolk Southern Railway, Virginia-based and with major lines near the earthquake epicenter, Tweeted in the hours after the quake struck that “preliminary reports indicate no injuries to our transportation infrastructure,” although it was operating at restricted speeds in some areas as a precaution.

The Federal Aviation Administration by late afternoon lifted its initial hold on flights into some eastern cities, and the White House – which for a time sent its employees out for a long walk in Lafayette Park as the earth rattled – soon assured us there was no major infrastructure damage. Stores and restaurants stayed open to a bustling business.

But it was also not nothing. A quake that cracked the Washington Monument, shook pinnacles off the National Cathedral and blew masonry out of the Capitol Dome also triggered so many phone calls that voice communications quickly clogged. You could usually text people but not talk with them. That brings to mind times like 9/11 and major storms when cell phone networks simply can’t cope with catastrophic demand.

The region could get another test within days. Right now, a hurricane is building strength as it heads toward North Carolina’s Outer Banks and perhaps the Washington-Baltimore area that just wrestled through quake disruptions.

An earthquake that was mild in its effects served as a reminder to be prepared, adjust to the unexpected and be ready for the next time when normal transport and communications systems might slump under the strain.

-- Contact John D. Boyd at jboyd@joc.com. Follow him on Twitter www.twitter.com/jboydjoc

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