Isabel tears through capital and leaves flooding, blackouts behind

Friday, September 19th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The capital city suffered from a rare power vacuum Friday. Thousands of residents were without lights, hundreds of trees littered the landscape and all three branches of government were basically shut down.

Lights were out at the Supreme Court and federal offices; President Bush remained at his secluded mountaintop retreat in Maryland and members of Congress for the most part stayed out of town.

For some 700 emergency work crews, the order of the day was to restore power and clean up the scattered tree limbs and other debris; the area's normally busy transit systems cranked slowly back into gear and school kids enjoyed another day off.

A scene in front of the White House was not atypical.

A workman with a chain saw was cutting up fallen tree limbs on the North Lawn of the White House. High winds overnight broke off part of an ash near the fence facing the Executive Mansion on Pennsylvania Avenue and toppled part of a tulip poplar. None of the historic trees on the 18-acre compound was lost, workers said. Late Thursday, a tree fell to the street along the city's Embassy Row, wreaking havoc with traffic.

The Potomac River surged beyond its banks and flooded some shoreside streets in Washington and the colonial-era downtown in suburban Alexandria, Va.

``We've given out 11,000 sandbags and our supply has been exhausted,'' said Sarah Miller, an Alexandria city spokeswoman.

Wind ripped down a big chunk of a tree planted by George Washington and an exhibit of crops was flooded at Mount Vernon, the first president's home. It was too early to say whether the white ash, one of only 13 remaining among those Washington planted around the house in 1785, could be saved, said executive director Jim Rees.

The hilltop mansion overlooking the Potomac River in the Virginia suburbs wasn't damaged, but ``there are small branches down all over the place,'' Rees said. He hoped to reopen on Saturday.

Trees and power lines knocked down by gusty winds littered many streets, and dozens of traffic lights were out.

``If you don't need to come in the city, please don't,'' Peter LaPorte, director of the city's emergency management agency. said at daybreak. ``A number of our main roads are covered with trees.''

More than 120,000 customers lost power in the District of Columbia along with more than 525,000 in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. By morning, city officials said more than 80,000 were still without power.

At Arlington National Cemetery, soldiers who guard the Tomb of the Unknowns were given _ for the first time ever _ permission to abandon their posts and seek shelter, Superintendent John Metzler said. But they stood guard anyhow.

Despite the mess, Washington's emergency management agency had no reports of injuries or serious damage.

``It could have been so much worse, and we were prepared for it to be so much worse,'' said Alan Etter, D.C. Fire and EMS spokesman.

Michael Davis, a deliveryman for Domino's Pizza in downtown Washington, said the storm meant a prosperous time for him.

``Everybody's tipping a lot better,'' Davis said. ``They've been very understanding about the fact that the pizza's not going to be on time.''