At National Cathedral, Concerns About Damage From Hurricane Irene

The Washington landmark narrowly escaped Tuesday's 5.8 magnitude earthquake, but the coming storm could deal further damage to the cathedral's ornate rooftop


A 5.8 magnitude earthquake in Virginia shook Washington, D.C. and significantly damaged the Washington National Cathedral on Tuesday.  

While initial reports suggested that repairs would be confined to the roof, new photos published by The Atlantic Wire show the extent of the damage caused by the earthquake. In a video provided exclusively to The Atlantic, head mason Joseph Alonso assessed the damage to the Cathedral's exterior:

The tip of one spire broke off and crashed to the ground, according to the Washington Post. Three other spires are damaged and all will require "significant repair."

"We're all a little overwhelmed,  been a crazy 24 hours," says Richard Weinberg, Director of Communications for the National Cathedral. "As reported, our structural engineers are telling us that the integrity of the building is sound. They've gotten a closer look at the interior of the nave in the sanctuary near the ceiling, I was up on the roof of the central tower, which received the fullest extent of the damage. It's just mind-boggling to see the particles and debris. It's very surreal."

The Cathedral announced Wednesday afternoon that the building will be closed through Sunday so a team of stonemasons and engineers can continue to perform their assessments of the damaged spires.

"In the nave itself, there are some particles that have fallen loose, and the team needs to make sure no more elements are going to fall or install a system to ensure that if something happens, something will be in place to catch those elements," said Weinberg.

While Weinberg was confident that the damage to the cathedral could be repaired, the impending landfall of Hurricane Irene poses a threat to the weakened spires on the building's roof. The storm, which was upgraded on Wednesday to a Category 3 hurricane, could hit anywhere along the east coast south of New York. Below, new photographs detail the precarious balance of the Cathedral's rooftop spires.

"We are certainly watching news regarding the hurricane's path," said Weinberg. "It looks as though it won't hit the DC area directly, but with the risk of storms following in its wake, we are looking for ways to secure the elements that are most precarious. There's certainly the possibility that the weather could cause more damage. The elements on the pinnacles that are still there, if they were to fall, based on the way they're situated, they would fall inward onto the roof, which can sustain their weight."

Regardless, Hurricane Irene could ruin any chance of restoring the Cathedral's ornate rooftop fixtures. The National Hurricane Center predicts Irene will likely become a Category 4 storm within the next 48 hours. With winds of up to 115 mph already reported, Weinberg says the damaged spires cannot withstand the full force of the coming storm.

"Based on my understanding, there's no way that the pieces that are precarious could sustain those level winds," said Weinberg.

This isn't the first time an earthquake has caused significant damage to the ornate design of a cathedral. A 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck New Zealand in February 2011, seriously damaging the Christchurch Catholic Cathedral.

The National Cathedral is soliciting donations to repair the building's unique architecture. You can learn more at

More on the East Coast quake:
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Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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