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Storms Leave Washington Swamped

Many federal workers stay home as flooding plagues offices and museums in the capital.

June 27, 2006|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Heavy flooding from a weekend of thunderstorms disrupted the nation's capital Monday, keeping thousands of government workers at home and closing several popular tourist destinations.

Power outages and flooding forced the closure of the Smithsonian's Natural History and American History museums, the National Gallery of Art and the National Archives -- which houses the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and other historic documents.

Crews used fire hoses to help pump water from the lower level of the Archives to the city sewers, but the nation's treasures remained "safe and dry," Archives spokeswoman Susan Cooper said.

Also flooded was the basement of the Internal Revenue Service, causing that agency to close its doors. Unfortunately for taxpayers hoping that their records might be waterlogged, spokesman Terry Lemons said the area contained no personal information -- just the infrastructure to run the building's electrical and air systems. The building will be closed again today as workers try to restore electricity.

At the Justice Department, e-mail and voice mail servers were down, and the building was closed. In a statement on the department's website, Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales noted that a small fraction -- fewer than 2% -- of the department's 120,000-strong workforce operates out of the main Robert F. Kennedy Justice Building on Pennsylvania Avenue.

"We are working around the clock to restore operational capacity to the building, although it is unclear at this time when the building will be functional," he said.

The storms even affected the White House, where President Bush awoke to a 100-year-old elm tree lying across the driveway by the North Portico. During an informal morning session with Press Secretary Tony Snow, a reporter quipped that perhaps the president, who likes to clear brush at his ranch near Crawford, Texas, could apply his skills to the White House grounds.

"Get your overalls and your boots ready," Snow replied.

Later in the day, the National Park Service, which maintains the grounds, reported that the tree was made into mulch.

The rainstorms, which began Saturday and continued through Monday, created chaos for commuters; federal employees were allowed to use unscheduled leave if they were unable to get to work. Mudslides knocked out roads -- including, for part of the morning rush hour, the Capital Beltway, which rings the city.

Southbound Amtrak service from Washington was canceled, as were commuter trains to Virginia and Maryland suburbs. Several downtown stops of the Washington subway system, the Metro, were shut for part of the day because of flooding.

"Riders should bring an umbrella and a bucket full of patience," said Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein.

Flights at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, which abuts the Potomac River, were delayed, and the National Weather Service said the 7 inches of precipitation measured on Sunday at the National Arboretum set a record for that date.

In surrounding areas, some homeowners evacuated; many were without electricity, and motorists whose cars stalled in high-water areas had to be rescued. Ditches overflowed, and drainage systems were overwhelmed.

Chris Vaccaro of the National Weather Service said the bad weather would continue for days, thanks to a low-pressure system off the East Coast. Radar on Monday afternoon showed storms extending from New York to Florida.

The storms are slow-moving, dropping heavy rain for a prolonged period of time. "It's a line of thunderstorms, like 'follow the leader,' " Vaccaro said.

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