Earthquake FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions

Regarding the Cathedral and the August 23, 2011, Earthquake

What caused the damage to the Cathedral?

On August 23, 2011, a shallow and widespread magnitude 5.8 earthquake struck the East Coast of the U.S., causing significant damage to Washington National Cathedral.

Is the Cathedral structurally sound?

Yes. A leading firm of structural engineers has assessed the Cathedral. They have performed a visual survey of the entire Cathedral and have deemed its basic structure to be sound.

Is it safe to be in the building?

Yes. The engineers who have made this verdict have evaluated every part of the building since the earthquake struck. Loose stonework and mortar have been secured or removed from the building. Out of an abundance of caution, safety measures have been implemented to assure the safety of both the staff and the public. A safety barrier has been put up around the perimeter of the building, and netting has been installed along the ceiling of the nave as a precaution.

What damage did the Cathedral sustain during the earthquake?

Most of the damage occurred in the highest parts of the Cathedral. The earthquake’s force most strongly affected the pinnacles of the central tower, where stones were literally shaken apart. In addition, the pinnacles atop many buttresses rotated. Flying buttresses around the apse at the historic east end of the Cathedral (the tall, freestanding ones) suffered cracks where their “flying” arms meet uprights. See below for more detailed information:

  • Pinnacles – The tower’s cone-shaped pinnacles, made up of beautifully carved blocks of Indiana limestone, were damaged. These pinnacles, which weigh thousands of pounds each, have been secured or removed and pose no threat to the building’s structural integrity; they need to be rebuilt, however. Together with the Cathedral’s other stone features, the pinnacles help balance the building’s weight and counter the force of wind.
  • Flying Buttresses – Several of the more than 40 flying buttresses that surround the Cathedral were damaged by the earthquake’s shaking in a similar manner to the central tower, just on a smaller scale. Engineers have evaluated their damage and have recommended what repairs they need.
  • Gargoyles – At least one whimsical gargoyle that directs water from heavy rains away from the building was damaged; the head of a bat-like creature on the building’s south side cracked and separated from the rest of the gargoyle, exposing its drainage pipe.
  • Interior –Damage inside the Cathedral was minor, but it is widespread and located around the ceiling. Netting is in place to catch any potential falling debris—bits of mortar, for example—that might come loose while repairs are being made.
Has there been any additional damage to the building since the earthquake?

We lost a few smaller pieces off the north transept during the strong winds of Hurricane Irene, but everything has been quiet since.

Why was most of the damage at the top of the building?

During an earthquake, energy is released in waves that cause buildings to move. An earthquake may shake a building’s base a little, but the building’s top moves more as those energy waves continue upward. In general, movement is greater the taller a building is. Washington National Cathedral’s central tower, the highest point in the city, rises 300 feet.

Did the building’s interior sustain any damage?

Fortunately, the damage to the interior was mostly chipping of the mortar in the vaulting (the “ceiling”) of the nave. Our masons have removed the loose pieces where they could be reached.

What about the building’s interior has changed?

When you enter the Cathedral’s nave, you will see black netting strung below the vaulting (the “ceiling”) at the clerestory level throughout. The netting is a safety precaution to catch any small pieces of mortar in the vaulting that might come loose during restoration work. The netting does obscure the view of the vaulting somewhat, but we have found that the light coming through the stained glass windows spills over the nets to create a whole new visual experience.

What caused the crane to fall?

The crane accident is still under investigation, and we do not want to speculate on the cause while that investigation is underway.

What safety measures have been put in place on both the inside and the outside of the building?

We have installed debris netting in the nave. On the exterior, we have installed covered walkways. A steel scaffold has been erected atop the central tower, with hanging debris netting ready to catch any stones that might fall. Further scaffolding has been erected around damaged pinnacles in the west towers and the south transept.

How long will it take to restore the Cathedral to its original state?

If funded immediately, the repair work would be completed in five years. There are two major factors that complicate the restorations. The first is access; all the damage was done very high off the ground, so it will take time to implement plans to reach the damaged areas. The second is the fact that the Cathedral is a hand-made building. All of the damaged pieces will need to be restored, and in some cases completely replaced, by masons carving stones by hand. The Cathedral took 83 years to build, but it was able to fulfill its mission while construction continued around it during that time. This restoration effort will be no different, and we are only able to do as much work as we have funding.

Why is the earthquake damage not covered by an insurance policy?

While we try to consider every eventuality in our stewardship of the Cathedral, it is necessary to make decisions based on the best information you have at the time. Until August, the area had not seen an earthquake of this size since 1897. The combination of the improbability of an earthquake coupled with high deductibles and annual premiums made the purchase of earthquake insurance a poor financial decision. We are currently reviewing our coverage to ensure the Cathedral is prepared in similar circumstances going forward.

Will you be seeking emergency funds from FEMA now that President Obama has declared a state of emergency in the District of Columbia?

The Cathedral is still in the process of determining its eligibility to apply to FEMA for funding. Regardless of the Cathedral's final decision, we are grateful to President Obama for the District's disaster declaration in response to Mayor Gray's request.

What will be the cost of the restoration?

The repair work, which includes intricate stone carving and detailed masonry, and will require significant scaffolding and large cranes to access the damaged areas, could be completed in five years if sufficient funds are raised immediately. The total cost estimate for all phases of the stabilization and earthquake restoration work has risen to more than $20 million (from the original estimate of $15 million).

How will the repairs be paid for?

It's important to remember that this Cathedral was built stone by stone over 83 years, funded by donations large and small from across the United States. The Cathedral’s operations depend on the generosity of individuals like you. We need your help to bring this spiritual home for the nation back to its full glory.

How can I help?

Please take the time to make a contribution today at www.nationalcathedral.org. This website is also the best way to keep up-to-date on the progress of repairs.

What impact will the ongoing restoration work have on the Cathedral’s mission?

Washington National Cathedral is called to be the spiritual home for the nation. The time following the earthquake has reminded us that our mission extends beyond the walls of the Cathedral. The Cathedral is not God; it symbolizes the importance of faith in America. We are committed to continuing our mission with as little impact as possible from restoration work.

Parking at the Cathedral

Parking in the Cathedral’s underground garage is free on Sundays for services and organ recitals; parking for concerts and programs is available for an event-parking fee. Learn more about parking options for individuals and groups.