UPDATED: Alexandria recovers from most powerful earthquake in a lifetime

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UPDATED: Alexandria recovers from most powerful earthquake in a lifetime
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A rare 5.8-magnitude earthquake shook office buildings and homes, sending residents, workers and voters fleeing to the streets of Alexandria at 1:53 p.m. Tuesday.
    
No deaths and only minor injuries resulted from the earthquake, fire officials said, but reports of stuck elevators, burst pipes, water main problems and reports of gas-like odors flooded in from around the city. 
    
Most medical-related calls the department received were due to panic attacks, officials said. 
    
City Hall was evacuated because of structural damage and Alexandrias nonemergency government employees were released from work early after the areas most powerful earthquake since 1897, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
    
The earthquake was a clinic in emergency management whether the emergency is man-made or natural, said acting City Manager Bruce Johnson. He compared it to September 11, 2001, when the city had to deal with a sudden catastrophe as opposed to last years record-breaking snowstorm. 
    
I think its a learning experience, but not necessarily about another earthquake, Johnson said. It teaches us stuff about managing emergencies, whatever they may be.
    
Johnson and other officials felt the most significant snag immediately after the tremors: communication. With cell phone and landlines clogged, it became evident that the best way to reach residents and other city agencies was via CB radios, email and social media.
    
The citys communication department posted its first message on Facebook 13 minutes after the quake, and on Twitter one minute later, telling residents to dial 911 in the case of a true emergency not for questions about structural damage and building integrity, which proved to be the publics biggest worry. 
    
Homes and offices should be assumed safe to enter unless structural damage is visible, like horizontal or diagonal cracks, officials with citys office of code administration said. Residents with nonemergency questions, like those related to the structural safety of their home, can call a city hotline at 703-746-HELP.
    
We live in such a historic area, theres a lot of people that have those concerns, said city spokesman Tony Castrilli.
    
In the event Tuesdays quake was a foreshock to a more powerful one in the coming weeks or months, Castrilli said the city is as prepared as we can possibly be. Emergency officials activated the citys Emergency Operations Center within two hours of the tremors.
    
The city government and Alexandria City Public Schools opened as usual Wednesday, though a portion of City Hall that sustained structural damage, including the Sister Cities conference center, was closed.
    
The earthquake, which began in central Virginia, interrupted a primary election for the Virginia Senate. Voters at precincts throughout the city were choosing a Democrat to run in the 30th District and a Republican in the 39th.
    
Polling stations reopened afterward and closed at 7 p.m., said Tom Parkins, city registrar of voters. 
    
But the election day was not without incident. Voters had to switch to paper ballots at the Northern Virginia Community College precinct after employees locked the facility following an evacuation, Parkins said. He doesnt believe the quake played into the low turnout but least some voters were turned away from the Mount Vernon Recreation Center after city employees not election officials locked the facility up with all polling equipment inside. 
    
While the polling station was later reopened, Parkins called it a serious violation that his staff is taking up with the city.
    
We had people at the recreation center level that took matters into their own hands, he said. Nobody, even the electoral board, [has] the authority to close a polling station. It gets more serious when you have nonelection officials making the decision. Thats a serious violation with the law. 
    
Parkins said the incident may be referred to the Commonwealths Attorneys Office.
    
Panic eroded to calm relatively quickly in the city center of Old Town. Minutes after the quake shook the citys streets and residents nerves, Michael Stone and twin sisters Victoria and Alexandra Wick settled on some stairs near the waterfront. The trio of Colorado natives had sung right through the quake.
    
We saw the buildings move back and forth. It was loud, Stone said. We were singing, we kind of stopped, looked around, and it was over.
    
Guitar case open, the buskers belted out Wagon Wheel by Old Crow Medicine Show, with some apt lyrics: Mama, rock me. 

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