- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2000

Federal workers in the Washington, D.C., area turned back home in frustration early yesterday when the decision to close the government finally came from its personnel chief who was in Iowa, campaigning for Vice President Al Gore.
Janice R. Lachance, director of the federal Office of Personnel Management, approved the shutdown at 7 a.m., three hours after the National Weather Service warned that a severe snowstorm threatened the District of Columbia and its suburbs.
The lateness of the decision irritated and angered many of the tens of thousands of federal workers who already were creeping into town on snow- and ice-slicked roads or waiting for delayed trains at commuter rail and Metro stations.
"It's like they're scared to make the decision. Part of being a manager … is taking the heat," said Marilyn Kessinger, a manager for the Department of Justice, who made the commute from Burtonsville, Md., and was at her downtown office by 7 a.m. "It was dangerous out there."
But Miss Lachance, who spent the past few days in Iowa campaigning on her own time for the vice president, described the decision to close government offices for the day as a costly one that had to be considered carefully.
"We knew there was going to be snow [at 4:45 a.m.], but it didn't appear there was going to be much accumulation," Miss Lachance said in a phone interview from Council Bluffs, Iowa. "When the National Weather Service revised their prediction at 7 a.m., [saying] that the storm was going to be much more serious, that's when I decided to close the federal government.
"This storm was a little different because it was unexpected," Miss Lachance added.
Meteorologists at the National Weather Service, however, told The Washington Times that they knew the snowfall was going to be heavy by 3:45 a.m. and warned fellow government officials to expect 5 to 10 inches.
The winter storm warning at that time also stressed the possibility of sleet mixed with freezing rain as well as blowing, drifting snow caught in gusting winds.
"I know that we were in contact with them, and we told them that this was going to be bad," weather service meteorologist Andy Woodcock said. "We wouldn't have given them another forecast."
Mr. Gore, who campaigned in New Hampshire yesterday after flying there from his big victory in Iowa's Democratic caucuses Monday night, joked that he was glad to be in the snow in New Hampshire and not in Washington.
"They know how to deal with snow here," Mr. Gore said, after picking up doughnuts and hot coffee for a snowplow crew at work in the Manchester area. "In Washington, you get one flake and forget it."
But Washington commuters weren't laughing.
Ken Austin, who works at the Navy Department, left his Wheaton, Md., home at 6 a.m. for an hourlong subway ride to the Van Dorn Street Metrorail station, where he planned to catch a bus to work. At the station, Mr. Austin, 40, waited until 8 a.m. for buses that never showed up.
"I stood around there, and a couple of buses did not come. And then I heard the announcement," Mr. Austin said. "So when I heard that, I just waited for the train and came back home."
Lorin Pfeil, an auditor with the Defense Department, lives only five miles from her Crystal City, Va., office. She arrived at work at 7:30 a.m. to find no one else on her floor. "It doesn't make any sense," she said. "They should be making the decisions at least by 6 a.m."
Miss Lachance, though, said she wouldn't have done anything differently.
"I do the best I can with the information I have," she said. "We act as quickly as we can to notify all employees. I went by the information the National Weather Service had given me. This was a storm no one knew was coming.
"It's a very hard decision to make because there's a loss of services that people around the country and around the world depend on," she said. "But the safety of our employees always takes precedence."
Each lost federal workday costs about $60 million, Miss Lachance said.
For most of the 250,000 federal workers in the Washington area, yesterday was the first weather day off since the blizzard in January 1996.
Emergency workers and military personnel had to find a way into work, but phones went unanswered from offices of Congress to the public affairs operation at the Pentagon.
Usually, when a storm is forecast, the decision to close federal offices is made at 4 a.m., well before the start of the workday.
The decision follows two conference calls among Miss Lachance and about 40 other federal and regional officials some with the weather service, some with the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments. Normally, one call occurs at 4 p.m. the day before an expected storm and the second call occurs 12 hours later, at 4 a.m.
During the calls, Miss Lachance and the other officials discuss road and weather conditions and the specifics of the forecasts. After the second conversation, Miss Lachance makes the final decision and her staff notifies the news media and updates an automated telephone line.
Miss Lachance's chief of staff, Leigh Shein, said the fact that his boss was out of town was irrelevant. "Most of the officials who take part in the conference call are at home, not in their offices," he added. "Anyone who is a head of an organization, their leadership is wherever they are."
Miss Lachance, a lawyer, worked in the first Clinton-Gore election campaign and later on the Clinton transition team. After being named OPM's communications director in 1993, she moved up fast, eventually being confirmed as deputy director of OPM by the Senate in 1997 and taking over the director's post later that year.

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