08/24/2011 11:37 am ET Updated Oct 24, 2011

Senate's Earthquake Off-Site Session Makes History

WASHINGTON -- The Senate made history on Tuesday, convening outside of the U.S. Capitol due to the evacuations from the earthquake that hit Washington, D.C. at 1:51 p.m. It was the first time in modern history that it has done so for routine proceedings.

"This is the first time since 1814, that we know of, that the Senate has met outside the chamber for a non-ceremonial session," said Katherine Scott, an assistant historian for the upper chamber.

On Aug. 24, 1814, invading British troops had burned down the Capitol's Senate wing and "reduced all but one of Washington's major public buildings to smoking rubble."

On Sept. 19, 1814, President James Madison arranged for Congress to instead meet at Blodgett's Hotel on 8th and E Streets, N.W. -- one of the few buildings left standing.

More recently, the Senate has met outside of its chambers for planned ceremonial sessions. On Sept. 6, 2002, they met for a joint session of Congress at Federal Hall in New York City for a memorial commemorating the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Additionally, Scott explained, on July 16, 1987, Congress convened a session at Independence Hall in Philadelphia to celebrate the bicentennial of the Great Compromise.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) had arrived on a train at Union Station at 1:47 p.m. on Tuesday, planning to head to the Capitol and preside over the pro forma session, which both chambers of Congress have been holding during the August recess. These brief sessions -- often lasting less than a minute -- block President Obama from making any recess appointments.

But first, he and his staff were going to Lower Senate Park to call into MSNBC to talk about Libya. At 1:51 p.m., when the ground began shaking, Coons sat down, unsure what was happening. Ian Koski, Coons' communications director, was with the senator and said it felt like he was surfing.

The Capitol and all Senate and House office buildings had been evacuated, and it was unclear when people were going to be allowed to return. But Coons needed somewhere to convene the Senate.

At 2:55 p.m., Coons was briefed on the contingency plans outside the Russell Senate Office Building. He and his staff then jumped in a Senate van and went to the nearby Postal Square Building -- which houses the National Postal Museum -- arriving at 3:04 p.m.

Dogs searched the room in the museum where the pro forma session would be held, and Coons entered the chamber at 3:20 p.m.

At 3:30 p.m., he called the session into order. Just 22 seconds later, the Senate adjourned.

"It was very orderly," said Koski. "They had clearly worked this out. ... They had to get Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to agree to allow it to happen offsite. It went from chaos to cool, military-like order in a matter of four minutes."

According to The New York Times, "Senate staffers had been planning for an event like this since Sept. 11, 2001, and brought along a large gray box labeled 'flyaway kit,' with procedure manuals and other documents to aid in case of such a session."

Although it was a different location, the procedures and decorum were the same.

The basement room where the Senate convened was fully set up by the time Coons arrived, complete with an American flag, official Senate seal and cameras to film the session. There was even a gavel that a staffer in the postal building loaned for the ceremony.

"Under the previous order, the Senate stands in recess until 11:15 a.m. on Friday," said Coons as he gaveled in -- and out of -- the historic session.