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Metro suspension leaves D.C. a ghost town

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - Heavy wind and rain blew through all-but-empty streets yesterday as the nation's capital, the federal government having closed, came to a near-standstill.

Though the brunt of the storm did not hit until early evening, the capital seemed a ghost town throughout the day, largely because of the Washington Metro's decision to suspend all train and bus service at 11 a.m. Metro's action led to federal officials' decision to shut down the government for the day.

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The government shutdown will cost about $60 million in lost work and productivity, according to the Office of Management and Budget. Federal officials said the government will be closed today as well.

More than 360,000 government employees stayed home, while tens of thousands of others who work in the district were kept away from their jobs by the lack of public transportation.

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Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport was also closed.

President Bush, who was scheduled to leave yesterday afternoon for Camp David, left Wednesday night instead. Aides said he wanted to make sure to fit in a news conference with King Abdullah II of Jordan at the Maryland mountain retreat before the storm hit.

"We wanted to get this over with," Bush said to reporters from Camp David. "So that you didn't have to float down the hill, if you know what I mean."

The president said he still planned to hold meetings with Abdullah. "Then we'll have a nice lunch, and then we'll batten down the hatches," Bush said.

Metro canceled all train and bus routes not because of concern for its equipment - its rails are designed to withstand gusts of up to 80 mph - but out of fear that the wind might blow some riders onto electrified tracks or in front of buses, officials said.

Though the wind was expected to die down by this morning, damage from the storm could delay or prevent Metro's reopening today.

Yesterday, though, the closure of Metro and the government left the city mostly deserted.

"The town clears out when the federal government closes," said Chad Kolton of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, one of the few agencies in operation in the captial.

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From FEMA's emergency response center in the district, Kolton and other officials monitored the storm and coordinated teams positioned across the Eastern seaboard. FEMA workers were ready to deploy power generators, medical supplies and temporary shelters from as far south as Port Charlotte, Fla., and as far north as Massachusetts.

On Capitol Hill, most congressional offices were closed, and just a handful of lawmakers showed up in the House and Senate chambers to conduct business. The House stayed in session for all of five minutes; the Senate hung on for an hour and 40 minutes.

Those who reported to the Capitol noted, with some bemusement, the empty halls and vacant seats surrounding them.

"I come from a place where weather events are a part of life," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, a Democrat whose home state of North Dakota is known for blizzards. "As long as the road's open and I've got windshield wipers, I'll be OK."

To Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who was first elected to the Senate last fall, the capital's reaction seemed a bit overdone.

"I'm not [afraid] - everybody else seems to be," Alexander said, leaving the Senate chamber after he had banged the last gavel on the day's abbreviated session and the chandeliers dimmed. "This certainly is a hunkered-down city."

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With public transportation coming to a halt at 11 a.m., many who needed to come downtown to work drove, came on bike, foot or even scooter - or arrived and left early to catch the last subway or bus home.

Andy Cook, a lawyer who dressed in shorts and flip-flops in anticipation of heavy rain instead of his usual suit, raced to the subway at 11 sharp to go home. "It was so quiet in the office I could actually get a lot of work done," said Cook, who began his work day at 6:30 a.m.

"Last train outta Dodge," another man called out as he raced down the subway escalator just before the station closed.

For cab drivers, the early afternoon, with only moderate rain and no subway or bus service, was a bonanza.

One of them, David Mulugete, said he enjoyed one of his best days ever. But even he was heading home at midday. His wife, who works downtown at an accounting firm, needed him to give her a ride home.

Tourists were trying to make the best of hurricane-interrupted visits to the nation's capital. Families tried to fit in photos in front of the White House before the rain arrived. But winds were howling, frizzing up people's hair.

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Bob Skinner, 68, a tourist from Amarillo, Texas, whose cowboy hat was threatening to blow away, said he and his wife, Margarett, were about done strolling around the Ellipse. They were headed back to their friend's home in Bethesda to ride out the storm.

"We're gonna just den up this afternoon," Bob Skinner said.

"We're gonna read a book," his wife said.

Ami and Ora Erez, who had come to Washington from Israel to celebrate his 60th birthday, had hoped to spend the last two days of their four-day visit touring the Smithsonian museums. Instead, they wandered the downtown streets early yesterday with curiosity.

"You feel it more than we do," said Ami Erez, a businessman who last visited Washington 20 years ago. "In Israel, we are used to crisis situations. We are not afraid."

Sun staff writers David L. Greene, Susan Baer and Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this article.


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