| A woman holds on to a pole to brace herself against Hurricane Isabel at Virginia Beach, Virginia, on Thursday. (Reuters)
Washington, Sept. 18 (Reuters): Hurricane Isabel put the US capital in crisis mode today, shutting the city’s metro for the first time, closing government offices and putting famous museums off-limits long before the storm hit.
Isabel howled ashore in North Carolina today with 160 kmph winds and torrential rains that forced evacuations throughout the US mid-Atlantic region and cancelled nearly 1,000 flights.
Mayor Anthony Williams declared a state of emergency a day ahead of the feared storm, set to smack into the capital later today, and told all non-essential workers to ride out the turbulent weather from home.
“It is big, it is ugly. It is a bad storm and it is heading our way,” Williams told a news conference. “Now is not the time to go and sightsee,” he advised.
With the city on a crisis footing, schools and government departments closed, President George W. Bush hunkered down at Camp David in Maryland.
The state department was operating a skeleton staff. At the sprawling Pentagon headquarters of the US military, most of the 25,000 civilian and military workers took the day off.
Busy with the Iraq conflict, the defence department relied on emergency staff. Pentagon police and military guards were also on duty and defence officials said the military was ready to respond to any request for help in the wake of the storm.
Most members of the House of Representatives and Senate left last night well ahead of the storm. But a few chose to ride it out, including passing a resolution honouring the life of country music singer Johnny Cash, who died last week.
Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican who was on hand to help conduct business in the Senate, said high winds were nothing new to Alaskans.
“This isn’t much of a storm. We see 190-200 kph winds in Alaska all the time,” Stevens said.
The shut down of the city’s metro system mid-morning was a trigger to the closure of government offices.
“We had to make the decision and err on the side of caution and safety for our passengers, pedestrians and employees,” said Cheryl Johnson, metro spokeswoman. “We’ve never shut the whole system down like this, never ever,” she added.
Few Washingtonians seemed to mind the subway system shutting down, noting that safety was paramount. “It’s the safe way to do it,” said one justice department employee.
Downtown Washington was empty of the usual hustle and bustle.
Airlines cancelled nearly 1,000 flights and moved aircraft out of the path of Isabel. Airlines cancelled flights at 19 major airports in the northeast, south and midwest, the Federal Aviation Administration said.
By early afternoon, skies along the coast were virtually clear of commercial air traffic from North Carolina to New York. Flights were expected to resume tomorrow, but operations could be sporadic.