Buildings in Boston were evacuated, and the earthquake has been felt as far away as Toronto.
Traffic lights were knocked out throughout Washington, and units at a nuclear power plant in Virginia went offline as a precaution.
The Pentagon and the US Capitol were evacuated in Washington, and thousands of panicked office workers scurried into the streets of the city after the lunchtime quake, which sent items crashing to the floor from store and office shelves.
“We were rocking,” said Larry Beach, who works at the US Agency for International Development in downtown Washington, 135km from the quake’s epicentre. “It was definitely significant.”
There were no immediate reports of major damage or injuries from the 5.9 magnitude quake, which the US Geological Survey said was centred in Mineral, Virginia, at a depth of only 1km.
In New York, the tremors prompted evacuations of courthouses, City Hall and halted work at the World Trade Center construction site.
Control towers at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City and Newark Liberty Airport in New Jersey were also evacuated, and flights were delayed while authorities inspected control towers and runways.
“We’re going to hope to resume operations. We are talking hours, not longer,” a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said.