News Column

Streets Empty Out as Washington Commuters Heed Warnings

Oct. 29, 2012

Gretel Johnston, dpa

Streets and rail cars normally jammed full of commuters on their way to desk jobs were nearly empty in the United States capital Monday as the federal government shut down because of severe weather.

The closure of the city's underground metro system, which on a normal day carries 700,000 people, and bus service, which normally transports 200,000 people, left central Washington feeling empty.

Sidewalks that usually hold a steady stream of pedestrians - a mix of office workers, tourists and conventioneers - were all but deserted. A Korean camera crew sent out to report on the presidential election - not the weather - had difficulty finding subjects to interview.

A bakery two blocks from the White House had a handful of customers after some of their workers got to their job by walking.

Among the patrons were a couple from Portland, Oregon, buying bread and sweets as a diversion from fate that Hurricane Sandy had dealt them. Their return flight to the Pacific Northwest was postponed for two days, leaving them stuck in Washington through Wednesday.

"We have a hotel room right down the street and they extended it for us," said Noreen Johansson, a professor of nursing at Linfield College in Portland. "That was only possible because it's not the height of the tourist season. If that had been the case, we would have been stranded with nowhere to go."

Johansson came to Washington on Friday for a conference of nursing educators - just one of the numerous events in the city affected by the massive storm, according to the city's convention bureau.

Warnings to commuters who normally drive to work were mostly heeded, said John Townsend, a spokesman for the American Automobile Association. Washington's network of divided highways and major multiple-lane streets usually carry 1.7 million cars per day. That number was cut in half on Monday, Townsend said.

The reduction was due to the closure of the federal government. While it is an unusual move, it has happened several times in the past due to adverse weather conditions.

The most recent closure was in February 2010 and lasted an unprecedented four days, following a blizzard so fierce it was nicknamed Snowmageddon.

A federal government closure in Washington was ordered two other times this century due to snow - in December 2009 and February 2003. In 1995 and 1996 budget impasses kept workers away for weeks.

The number of taxis trawling the road was significantly higher than usual. But whether they would be offering service later in the day was questionable because government officials recommended people stay inside.

With Sandy strengthening and bearing down on coastal areas, they said no one except essential workers - electrical technicians, emergency personnel, law enforcement officials and medical professionals - should be out on the road.

Source: Copyright 2012 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH

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