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Closures, disappointed tourists in capital shut down by Isabel

SHARE Closures, disappointed tourists in capital shut down by Isabel

WASHINGTON (AP) — Winds and rain driven by Hurricane Isabel whipped through the nation's capital Thursday, downing trees and knocking out power for hundreds of thousands. The federal government shut down for two days.

Washington's offices, monuments and subway tunnels were all but abandoned as the city of 573,000 braced for Isabel to brush by about 65 miles to the west.

Some tourists were surprised that monuments and museums were closed Thursday hours ahead of the storm.

"I think it's a little overkill," said Sandra de Dubovay, who was visiting from the Los Angeles area. "Some people only have a day here. It is frustrating."

The decision to close the federal government Thursday — a move affecting about 350,000 workers — was a public safety decision, said Scott Hatch, director of communications at the Office of Personnel and Management. Essential workers were on the job for emergencies.

"In light of concern for personal safety of federal employees and major disruptions to local transportation and power systems, the federal government will remain closed tomorrow," Hatch said Thursday night.

Some found opportunity in the high winds. Two windsurfers were spotted on the Potomac River Thursday afternoon.

Just before nightfall, winds gusted up to 55 mph, downing trees throughout the city. One tree blocked all four lanes of Massachusetts Avenue near the vice presidential residence along Embassy Row.

"Stay calm and keep your behind inside," Mayor Anthony Williams said, who noted city officials have handed out 5,000 sandbags.

Members of the D.C. National Guard were spending the night in their armory so they would be available with four-wheel drive vehicles and water tank trailers.

More than 78,000 customers lost power in the District of Columbia, and more than 320,000 in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs.

Washington's Reagan National Airport was closed Thursday afternoon and was expected to open Friday morning. Washington Dulles International Airport remained open, though passengers were advised to check with airlines about their flights.

Two local rail services, Virginia Railway Express and Maryland Rail Commuter, or MARC, trains suspended commuter rail service Thursday and Friday.

Schools closed. Both houses of Congress went through the formality of meeting, but few lawmakers were around. The sessions were short; the House adjourned after about five minutes.

The Metro system, which operates 1,400 buses and five Metrorail subway lines on a 103-mile system began shutting down at 11:00 a.m. Thursday. The system will not open at 5:30 a.m. Friday until staff can conduct safety and security checks after the storm passes, Metro officials said in a statement.

The U.S. Postal Service delivered mail through Thursday and expected to make deliveries Friday, said Deborah Yackley, a postal service spokeswoman.

Taking buses and subways out of service was strictly a safety issue, said Cheryl Johnson, spokeswoman for Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

"We did not want anyone to be out in the area with these anticipated high winds because they could be blown into the path of a bus, a train, or debris could hit them," she said.

While tourists hoping to go to the top of the Washington Monument were clearly disappointed that it was not open, many took the city's shuttering in stride.

An entourage of South Korean government workers, whose meetings in Washington were canceled because of the weather, toured the Supreme Court before it closed at 2 p.m.

Hwan-Kee Paik, who works for the South Korean Embassy, tried to make the best of it.

"They have a rare opportunity to meet a hurricane," he said. "It's a very good experience."