Hurricane Isabel shuts down Washington

Posted 11:29pm September 23

by Jason Hipp
U-WIRE Washington Bureau

Hurricane Isabel swept through Washington, D.C., Thursday night into Friday morning, its high winds and heavy rain leaving a trail of downed trees and flooded streets, shutting down the federal and city government for two days, closing the Metro rail and bus service for the first time in its history and leaving as many as 1.4 million homes and businesses without power.

By Monday night, 24 people had been reported killed by the storm, which struck the banks of North Carolina before moving northwest. 12 were killed in Virginia alone, and Gov. Mark Warner (D) called the storm’s impact “the most far-reaching in a generation in Virginia.”

The Fairfax County Water Authority warned its over 1.2 million customers that the water supply might be contaminated, not lifting boiling orders until Sunday. Power companies predicted the majority of its customers might not have service restored until the weekend.

“We’re working very feverishly,” said Bob Fulton, spokesperson for Dominion Virginia Power, which had as many as 1.8 million customers without power in Virginia and North Carolina. “This is the most devastating event that Dominion has ever experienced in our 100-year history.”

300 trees fell in the District alone, and flooding consumed the region. In Virginia, homes and businesses lay submerged in Alexandria’s Old Town district, and 500 families had to be rescued from parts of the Belle View neighborhood. In Maryland, the Severn River overflowed near City Dock, and Baltimore Harbor flooded streets in the Fells Point section. In the District, flooding reached parts of Georgetown and areas around the Tidal Basin.

President Bush, who traveled to Camp David in advance of the storm, declared Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia federal disaster areas, allowing them to receive federal aid. The storm could potentially cost several billion dollars, with experts predicting insurance losses around $1 billion.

By Monday morning, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had received over 21,000 calls for Individual Disaster Aid, including 11,621 from Virginia, 3,778 from Maryland and 256 from the District of Columbia.

Doug Welty, public affairs representative for FEMA, said it would take several weeks to determine the cost of damages.

“It’s as bad as it gets,” he said. “We’re treating this as just a very, very critical incident and keeping in mind that there are a lot of individual tragedies as well.”

Isabel brought transportation in the region to a halt. Before the storm hit, Metro rail and bus service announced it would close on 11 a.m. Thursday for the first time in its history. Amtrak service south of Washington was cancelled, as were 1,500 flights across the country.

Public schools across the metro area closed Thursday, and District schools as well as scores across Maryland and Virginia remained closed Monday.

On college campuses, students received an unexpected early weekend when most area schools announced closures by Wednesday night. Students at William and Mary were evacuated and the campus remained closed through Monday. Secondary campuses at both American University and The George Washington University lost power, leaving some students frustrated with the university response.

“We had no idea when we’d get power back,” said Blake McCoy, one of 200 freshmen residents at GW’s Mount Vernon campus housed in District hotels Saturday through Monday morning. “No one talked to us at all while the power was out.”

At American University, where nearly 1200 students were affected by outages at the Tenley and Park Bethesda campuses, power was restored at least temporarily by Sunday, but not all were satisfied.

“From what we were able to quickly provide and what students wanted, it probably didn1t match up,” said Todd Sedmak, Media Relations Director for AU.

The federal government reopened Monday, after its closing left the city a virtual ghost town Thursday and Friday. La Colline, a restaurant near Capitol Hill that caters to lobbyists and lawmakers, lost 150 reservations when it closed Thursday night and served only eight customers for lunch Friday afternoon compared to its usual one hundred, according to wine steward James Fallon.

The commute was mostly smooth Monday, but crews were still working to restore more than 700 traffic lights in the District and 500 in Northern Virginia that remained dark into the weekend. Police have been assisting drivers at intersections that have become four-way stops, leading to one fatality when a driver continued past an intersection and struck a policeman there, according to Sue Akey, spokesperson for Mid-Atlantic AAA.

“Everyone’s [still] kind of on edge,” she said.

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