- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 17, 2003

The calm before the storm is anything but calm.

As Hurricane Isabel — actually the prospect of Hurricane Isabel — looms, much of the nation’s capital struts to the frenzied cadence of warnings, closings, alarms and advisories for an event which may yield a storm o’ the century. (The century is, after all, not yet 3 years old.)

Or it may be little more than the storm o’ September.

But the frisson of disaster preparedness is already irresistible to citizen and official alike. If Isabel turns out to be only a squall, and television can return to real news, like J-Lo’s broken engagement, the panic will be good practice for the first snowflake of January.



The great water ballet started in the supermarkets days ago, when Isabel was barely more than a gleam in a forecaster’s eye, trolling the Atlantic off the Cape Verde Islands. The frantic and the thirsty began to fill their carts with bottled water and rolls of toilet paper. Comfort foods of every persuasion are now at a premium: what’s a disaster without potato chips, tomato soup and frozen pizza?

“Entenmann’s! Get me the Entenmann’s,” screamed one earnest homemaker as she rounded the corner of the bakery aisle at the Giant Food in Bethesda yesterday, trailing a toddler who had already broken into a designated box of emergency cookies.

Another man stood, thunderstruck in the desolation of the water aisle, where only a few chichi bottles of lime-flavored seltzer remained. Such fare would never do in the face of danger.

“That’s all they have,” he barked into his cell phone. A moment passed, he listened to instructions, then flung the bottles into his cart and scurried toward the battery display.

Isabel was wreaking havoc while still just a whirling red, blue and green Doppler splotch on the TV screen, leaving public officials, event planners, school administrators and other decision-makers in a quandary.

To cancel or not to cancel? To close or not to close? The chroniclers of the travails of officials who must divine the right call were ready with pencil and camera.

“Basically, we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t,” said one D.C. official who asked not to be named.

Before the first whispers of bad weather even reached the Beltway yesterday, schools and colleges announced they would shut for today and tomorrow as well — though a late-afternoon bulletin from the National Weather Service conceded that “the precise timing and location of landfall is uncertain.”

Metro somberly hinted it would suspend service on all subway lines and buses because officials “were concerned about things like riders being blown off platforms onto tracks, or blown in front of buses.”

“We’re looking at some point probably closing down entirely,” Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said.

Amtrak said it would stop train service south of Washington today, and other public safety officials warn that 911 emergency responses might cease if the winds got going.

And the infamous “tractor man” is off the hook for a few days. The trial of Dwight Watson, the tobacco farmer who gridlocked downtown in March by sitting atop his John Deere for three days on the Mall, has been delayed until next week.

“I suspect that by this time tomorrow we will be in some sort of weather emergency,” U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson told the courtroom.

“Thank you for postponing this trial until Monday because of the storm,” Mr. Watson replied.

Meanwhile, an XV-15 tilt-rotor plane, an old Air France Concorde and a Boeing Stratoliner received their own hurricane preparations. Technicians at the new Air and Space Museum facility near Washington Dulles International Airport dragged them indoors ahead of schedule.

Spokesman Peter Golkin said the museum feared the old aircraft would get “battered around.”

Not everybody is looking for the panic button. One veteran of the Iraq war can’t wait to see the big blow. Marine Sgt. Keith Wheeler, who returned to the United States on Tuesday, has not seen rain for seven months.

“So he’s going to get more than enough,” his wife, Nickie, said. “A hurricane of homecoming.”

Clemson University students and professors raced yesterday to build a quartet of 30-foot wind towers along the North Carolina coast to measure the wind speed of Hurricane Isabel near the ground.

“We’ll probably venture in to where we get into say, 50 mph winds, so the students can all can feel the force,” project leader Tim Reinhold said.

And smack in the middle of Chesapeake Bay, some 60 residents of Smith Island stayed behind to defy Isabel — and every warning that has been issued this week. “I’ve been here 65 years. I’ve never left for one yet. I was here for Hazel when the eye came right over the island,” said waterman Eddie Evans, 65, as he sat on a dock repairing crab traps.

“It’s fun,” said an intrepid local in Kill Devil Hills, N.C., yesterday as he ordered a coffee at the Front Porch Cafe, a beachfront restaurant. “The adrenaline that gets going before a storm is cool.”

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