For some, shutdown’s impact has been devastating

October 2, 2013

As we now know all too well, Congress’ failure to reach a compromise on government spending triggered a process that closed dozens of federal agencies and sent hundreds of thousands of people home without pay. But, like a lesson in unintended consequences, the effects have also rippled far beyond federal agencies, inconveniencing -- and in some cases, irreparably harming -- ordinary Americans.

Perhaps the most striking instance has been the near-total shutdown of the National Institutes of Health. The internet reacted with outrage to the revelation that the NIH would not admit the roughly 200 patients per week who join life-saving medical trials. About 30 of those people would be kids -- about 10 of them, kids with cancer.

But there have been other casualties, as well. Rescue workers at Idaho’s Craters of the Moon National Monument have scaled back the search for missing hiker Jo Elliott-Blakeslee after 16 of the park’s employees were furloughed. Because of shutdown rules that prohibit government employees from doing any kind of work while furloughed, even volunteering or checking their email, those people can’t help the ongoing search.

Couples planning weddings at national parks and monuments have scrambled to make new plans or risked cancellation. Mike Cassesso and MaiLien Le may be the first victims in D.C.: Their ceremony, with 130 guests, was planned for the west lawn of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial this Saturday.

In Arizona, a river rafting trip 18 years and $30,000 in the making came to an abrupt halt when the Grand Canyon National Park closed. A park spokeswoman told the Daily Sun that other guests had flown in from Japan, France and Germany.

That was also the story in D.C., where tourists meandered around closed monuments and museums. Danny Aiello, a retired police officer visiting the city on the first anniversary of his wife’s death, couldn’t see the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum -- which he’d counted on to lift his spirits.

Up the road in Park View, the Armed Forces Retirement Home -- a retirement facility for veterans -- cancelled a slate of scheduled activities for residents, including several events with the community nonprofit Friends of the Soldiers Home and an antique car show organized with the Mercedes-Benz Club. The club had advertised the event as “a great way to … give a little back to the veterans.” Over half of AFRH residents are older than 80 years old.

There are dozens of smaller personal stories, as well: A federal worker and brand-new mom in Buffalo, N.Y., saw her maternity leave evaporate with the shutdown. A military consultant in Fayetteville, N.C., has made plans to leave the office he’s rented for two years and move into a cheaper space. At Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, Colo., one woman said she saw soldiers and their families fighting over the commissary’s dwindling supply of meat.

What’s clear from all these stories, however, is that the shutdown is, for thousands and perhaps millions of Americans, more than a mere political issue. Many will measure it not in days or dollars, but in heartache.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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