Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Transportation officials across the Washington metropolitan area will suspend all bus, train and subway services today and all area school officials have canceled classes as Hurricane Isabel creeps closer to the Mid-Atlantic coast.

The federal government also closed its offices today, giving some 350,000 workers a day off.

Metro officials said last night they will suspend all services to customers at 11 a.m. Amtrak officials canceled many of its trains leaving the District for cities in Virginia and North Carolina, where Isabel was expected to make landfall this morning.

“It’s an issue of safety,” Metro spokeswoman Cheryl Johnson said of the suspension. “With wind speeds that high, people could be blown into the path of a train or bus or knocked on the rail track bed.”

Metro operates more than 1,400 buses over 340 bus routes, and trains on 130 miles of tracks, nearly one-half underground, to 47 underground stations.

Officials with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) shut down the federal government after they became concerned about potential commuter transportation problems.

“The decision was made in the interest of public safety,” said Brenda Bertrand, spokeswoman for OPM. “We took into account the difficulties that public transportation providers in the region will likely encounter as the weather deteriorates. We don’t want a massive number of people stranded downtown.”

Governors in Virginia and Maryland declared states of emergency, posting thousands of National Guard soldiers across the region.

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner authorized the evacuation of at least 86,500 residents in southeast Virginia after the National Weather Service extended a hurricane warning over that area north to Chincoteague. Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. ordered officials to evacuate all campers from state parks.

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams also declared a state of emergency and closed all city government offices today and tomorrow.

City officials are putting snow emergency route regulations into effect at noon today, which means no parking will be allowed on roads marked with red and white snow emergency signs.

Transportation officials warned that commuters who show up for work today could be left stranded.

State transit officials canceled Maryland Rail Commuter and Virginia Rail Express service today. “This is clearly a unique situation,” said MARC spokesman Richard Scher. “There is a better than average chance we’ll be changing our plans on the fly as this develops.”

Airline companies also scrambled to stay out of the way of the hurricane.

Airlines canceled Mid-Atlantic flights, tied down aircraft, moved them into hangars or had the planes flown out of the storm’s path. Airport officials recommended that anyone scheduled to fly in the next few days call their airlines to check on flight changes before heading to the airport.

Meanwhile, Amtrak and Greyhound Lines canceled schedules south of Washington as weather forecasters predicted high winds, heavy rain and potential flooding in low-lying areas.

Hotels hundreds of miles from the coast filled up with seaside residents fleeing the storm.

Commuters today will have to drive, and officials say it could be dangerous.

“It’s not the kind of weather anybody should be driving in,” said Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, a local motor club.

Mr. Anderson said the ground is already so sodden that the hurricane likely will down many trees as it rolls through the region. “It’s going to be dangerous out there,” he said. We’ll see a lot of trees and electric lines coming down. It’s going to be a great day to call in sick if you can.”

Utility officials also anticipate many downed power lines and the three major companies say they are prepared. Pepco, Baltimore Gas & Electric (BGE) and Dominion Virginia Power brought in hundreds of extra crews from out of town and had their own workers ready to restore electricity to customers who lose power.

Meanwhile, the D.C. Department of Public Works (DPW) crews kept busy bagging nearly 27 tons of sand through last night, while the city’s emergency management center added staff from local nonprofit groups. As of yesterday afternoon, DPW handed out more than 500 sandbags to D.C. residents since Tuesday night.

State officials are taking precautions to protect residents, tourists and the Navy against the storm.

Mr. Warner authorized local governments in the “risk areas” to order some 1.6 million residents to evacuate. “People recognize this is a real deal,” he said. “This is, in terms of prediction, perhaps the worst storm we’ve seen in decades.”

U.S. Navy officials encouraged all except emergency crews of its 85,000 personnel and 107,000 dependents to leave the Norfolk area.

Langley Air Force Base and Bethel Manor military housing at Hampton were virtually closed because the base’s runway is only about 11 feet above sea level. A surge of flooding from the Atlantic could raise water levels 7 to 11 feet above normal tides, forecasters have said.

Officials in Maryland yesterday opened an emergency operations center at a military camp in Reisterstown.

Mr. Ehrlich has said his biggest concern is flooding. “The most fearsome aspect of this storm is the flooding,” said Quentin W. Banks Jr., a spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency. “Floods tend to kill more people than any other natural disaster.”

The White House battened down the hatches as well. “We are working to secure items that may be blown away in the event of the high winds here,” White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said yesterday. “This could include flags. It could include the awnings around the complex. Those will likely be brought down. We’ll be checking the drains in the complex to be sure that they are clear.”

Isabel’s arrival forced many community groups, churches and even couples taking the big plunge to rethink their plans this weekend.

“We’re still on for now,” said Louis Schiff, a wedding planner from McLean who spent yesterday finalizing the details of a client’s ceremony Saturday in Annapolis. “Obviously, we’re all concerned. But you look outside and it’s beautiful out. It’s hard to get in a state of absolute panic right now.”

The Rev. Catherine Bego of the Upper Room Baptist Church in Northeast refused to call off her church’s fourth annual outdoor “Spiritual Explosion.” The community rally will be held at the church in the 3600 block of Minnesota Avenue at noon Saturday. “We’ve never had a rainout yet,” she said. “We don’t have a contingency plan in place, either. I believe we’ll have clear skies. But the least we can do until then is pray on it.”

• Brian DeBose, Patrick Badgley, Robert Redding Jr., Shayla Bennett, Tom Ramstack, Marguerite Higgins and Tarron Lively contributed to this report, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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