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Hurricane Isabel Shuts Down D.C.

September 18, 2003

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Normally bustling, the capital’s monuments, offices and subway tunnels were all but abandoned Thursday as the federal government largely shut down for Hurricane Isabel.

Subway and bus systems stopped picking up passengers for the day at 11 a.m. Schools closed. Both houses of Congress went through the formality of meeting, but few lawmakers were around. The sessions were short; the House adjourned after about 5 minutes.

A few tourists tried to get in some sightseeing before the weather turned nasty. Some were surprised that the monuments and museums were closed, and that the subway already had stopped running when winds were calm and only sprinkles of rain were falling.

``I think it’s a little overkill,″ said Sandra de Dubovay, who was visiting from the Los Angeles area. ``Some people only have a day here. It is frustrating.″

Not for everyone. Two windsurfers were spotted on the Potomac River early Thursday afternoon.

The decision to shut down the subway and bus systems came Wednesday and had a ripple effect. Federal, state and local governments and private businesses then decided to stay closed Thursday rather than have workers take public transportation in the morning only to be left stranded at work in the afternoon.

Closing the federal government _ a move affecting about 350,000 workers _ was a public safety decision, said Scott Hatch, director of communications at the Office of Personnel and Management. Essential workers were on the job for emergencies.

Taking buses and subways out of service was strictly a safety issue, said Cheryl Johnson, spokeswoman for Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

``We did not want anyone to be out in the area with these anticipated high winds because they could be blown into the path of a bus, a train, or debris could hit them,″ she said.

More than half of the region’s 103-mile rail system is either at surface level or is elevated. There are about 340 bus routes, with a fleet of more than 1,400 buses.

``You have to make a decision on the best information at the time,″ Johnson said. ``Weather forecasting is not an exact science.″

One benefit was that people who did have to work and drove faced a much easier commute than normal.

While tourists hoping to go to the top of the Washington Monument were clearly disappointed that it was not open, many took the city’s shuttering in stride.

An entourage of South Korean government workers, whose meetings in Washington were canceled because of the weather, toured the Supreme Court before it closed at 2 p.m.

Hwan-Kee Paik, who works for the South Korean Embassy, tried to put the best face on the situation.

``They have a rare opportunity to meet a hurricane,″ he said. ``It’s a very good experience.″

Laurie Dunnell of Enoch, Utah, said she and her family were upset about not getting to take their tour of the White House. Then again, she’d never been in a hurricane before.

``This will be something to see,″ she said.

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