- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 18, 2003

A weakening Hurricane Isabel left the Washington metropolitan area at a standstill, as the storm knocked out power to tens of thousands overnight and shut down public transportation, schools and local government offices for the second day in the row today.

There were reports of three deaths as Isabel slowly lost intensity and cut inland toward the District from North Carolina last night. A motorist died when his car hydroplaned and crashed on Interstate 95 near Richmond. Another person was killed when a tree fell on a car in Albemarle County, Va. And a power company employee was electrocuted in Morehead City, N.C., while making repairs.

The National Weather Service forecasters warned that even a weaker tropical storm could cause destruction when the center of the weather system passed through the region about 5 a.m. today.

By last night, Isabel had knocked out electricity to more than 1.5 million customers in Virginia, including 248,000 in Northern Virginia. More than 290,000 residents in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and the District lost power before midnight, and thousands of local utility crews were being joined by out-of-town crews to restore electricity.

The leading edge of the storm forced residents to evacuate their homes along the Potomac River in Fairfax County and off the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in Long Beach, Md., yesterday afternoon.

Many government offices, schools, banks and businesses remain closed today. “It seemed prudent to close offices and not subject employees to the hazardous conditions,” said Andre Hornsby, Prince George’s County schools chief executive.

Isabel was expected to leave the area this afternoon.

Virginia Railway Express and Maryland Rail Commuter trains suspended service again today.

Metro officials said they would not restart their fleet of 1,400 buses and five subway lines on time — if at all — at 5:30 a.m. today, depending on how much damage Isabel wreaks in the Washington area. Metro buses and trains are not designed to withstand wind speeds of more than 80 mph, Metro General Manager Richard A. White said.

“It’s safe to say we’re not going to reopen [today] at 5:30,” said Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein. “We just are too far away from knowing what the storm damage will be.”

Metro’s decision on Wednesday to shut down at 11 a.m. yesterday prompted the federal government to give its 350,000 employees the day off yesterday. “All these decisions kind of muddle together,” said Paul Holbert, an administrator for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the agency that determines whether to close all federal offices.

Last night, the federal government announced it would be closed again today.

Meanwhile, Isabel grounded more than 2,000 flights, but regional airports were expected to resume flights this morning.

Amtrak shut down all trains south of the District in the hurricane’s path and reduced Northeast Corridor trains by about 10 percent as many regular passengers stayed at home.

Even before the first raindrop fell yesterday, the District shut down except for police, emergency and road crews who were ready to repair or clear out downed power lines and toppled trees and detour traffic around flooded roads.

President Bush was in Camp David, Md., yesterday. Mr. Bush left the White House Wednesday, one day earlier than planned. Meanwhile, congressional leaders canceled floor votes until next week, and most lawmakers left the District well before Isabel arrived. Officials at Arlington National Cemetery said they won’t perform funeral services today.

Local governments and Red Cross officials yesterday set up more than a dozen emergency shelters for residents in low-lying parts of Virginia, Maryland and the District. Public works crews gave out tens of thousands of sandbags to residents determined to stay put.

Gyms and auditoriums at local county schools, already closed for classes for the week, were turned into makeshift emergency shelters for displaced residents.

“Some places are setting up shelters beforehand and others are waiting until after the storm passes over to assess the damage,” said Courtney Prebich, spokeswoman for the D.C. Red Cross chapter. “We don’t know how many people will need the shelters, but we feel like we’re ready.”

Fairfax County, with 1 million residents, declared a state of emergency that took effect yesterday afternoon. The county opened four emergency shelters at area high schools. Prince William County also declared an emergency and opened two shelters. Loudoun County opened three.

In Maryland, officials and volunteers opened at least 52 evacuation shelters by last night.

The Maryland Port Administration closed the Port of Baltimore. The Army Corps of Engineers activated an emergency-operations center to monitor the Baltimore area’s 14 flood-control reservoirs in the Susquehanna River basin and two others in the Potomac River basin.

The Maryland Transportation Authority shut down three bridges, including the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. The other bridges are the Nice Bridge on U.S. 301 that connects Charles County, Md., to Virginia and the Key Bridge on Interstate 695 in eastern Baltimore County.

Transportation officials said the bridges will remain closed as long as the areas around them continue to have heavy, sustained winds.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. activated more than 600 National Guard troops on the Eastern Shore and Hagerstown in Washington County, where officials dispatched swift-water rescue teams brought in from Kentucky.

Mr. Ehrlich also granted leave to state employees today. “I urge state employees … to stay off the roads as much as possible over the next several days,” he said.

In Virginia, state emergency management coordinator Michael Cline warned residents to prepare to be without electricity for several days to a week.

Virginia State Police added troopers throughout the eastern part of the state and the National Guard stationed hundreds of troops in flooded areas.

The 85 Red Cross shelters across Virginia were filled to capacity, and officials said late yesterday they were working to open more shelters as the hurricane forced more residents to evacuate their homes.

Fairfax County officials evacuated the Belle View and New Alexandria neighborhoods along the Potomac River in the Alexandria area of the county yesterday afternoon. The evacuation area was roughly located between Fort Hunt Road and the George Washington Parkway.

Maryland officials also evacuated neighborhoods in the Long Beach area, which is located off the Bay.

Throughout the Washington area, police and emergency officials feared that downed trees and power lines could jam 911 systems, leaving people with life-threatening emergencies unable to contact dispatchers.

The Metropolitan Police Department brought in extra dispatchers to staff 911 lines during the hurricane. Local governments told residents to call 911 only for “life-threatening or other extremely serious emergencies.”

“She is a huge storm and she is a monster storm,” said D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams during a news briefing yesterday afternoon. “Stay calm, stay informed and stay indoors.”

Most public and private schools in Virginia canceled classes today for the second day in a row. Maryland public schools had previously planned to close school today for a teachers’ in-service day.

Patrick Badgley, Brian DeBose, Arlo Wagner and Tom Ramstack contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire-service reports.

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