East coast of US rocked by 5.8-magnitude earthquake

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The capital of the free world has experienced many a man-made shock in recent years: a major terrorist attack, serial sniper murders, an anthrax scare, not to mention a brush with national debt default. Yesterday, though, Washington DC received a rare and jarring shock at the hand of Mother Nature: a 5.8-magnitude earthquake that rattled structures, emptied the Capitol and other office buildings, and crashed mobile phone networks.

The quake, whose epicentre was 83 miles away to the south-west in rural Virginia, occurred shortly before 2pm local time at a depth of 3.7 miles. The tremors were felt across the eastern US and along the Atlantic seaboard, from Toronto in Canada to the north, to Atlanta, Georgia, in the south. In New York, some skyscrapers swayed. Overall, however, damage appears to have been light. A few minor injuries were reported, and plaster, tiles and bricks fell off some buildings, especially in Richmond, Virginia, the closest major metropolitan area to the epicentre.

In the capital, three of the four pinnacles on the National Cathedral were dislodged, and stonemasons were examining possible damage to the central tower of the building, which dominates the skyline in north-west Washington. Other major historic sights, including the 555-foot tall Washington Monument, were shut as a precaution.

Key infrastructure was unharmed. A few miles from the quake's epicentre in tiny Mineral, Virginia, the North Anna nuclear power plant was functioning as usual, after its two reactors were shut down automatically. The facility can operate indefinitely on generator power, a spokesman said.

But there was no concealing the general jitters, especially with the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaching, and the knowledge that Washington and New York are the terrorists' prime targets on the US mainland.

On a perfect late summer afternoon in residential north-west Washington, where houses shook for some 15 seconds, many eyes anxiously turned south towards the city centre to check for plumes of smoke, or worse. "When I heard it was only an earthquake, I was relieved," one local worker said.

Then the cable TV networks took over. Götterdämmerung in Tripoli was temporarily forgotten, as the focus switched to whether the holidaying President Barack Obama had felt the quake while he was playing golf on the island resort of Martha's Vineyard off Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

The tremor was a reminder that California is not the only place in the US where earthquakes happen. Yesterday's was the 25th in Virginia's 223 years of statehood. According to experts, it was large by East Coast standards, but modest compared to the monster 1811/1812 New Madrid quakes south of St Louis, that briefly reversed the flow of the Mississippi river.

Mother Nature hasn't finished with Washington. This weekend the Mid-Atlantic region is likely to be brushed by Hurricane Irene, heading for the Bahamas, set to be the most powerful tropical storm of the season so far.