As 347,000 federal workers scrambled, skidded, sloshed, honked, shouted and fumed their way to work yesterday, they wanted to know one thing: Would there be an Early Dismissal? Or would they scramble, skid, slosh, honk, shout and fume their way home at the usual time in the usual catastrophic scene that is Washington's rush hour whenever it snows?
There hasn't been an Early Dismissal, or Condition One, since 1973. And before that, since the mid-'60s.
We did have a Condition Two yesterday morning, which means people can come to work a little late without getting docked. And a number of individual offices were letting the staff out by midafternoon. But no Condition One.
A lot of people wanted to know, as they do every time it snows, just exactly who makes these decisions? Who blown the whistle that can cost the metro cost $3 million an hour-in payroll loanes?
Well, we can tell you. The Man is Hugh Carter Jr., White House special assistant for administration and the President's cousin. But he has a whole pyramid of helpers.
Sometime between 6 and 7 a.m. yesterday he chatted on the phone with Civil Service Commission officials and then made his announcement. Mayor Walter Washington was in on it too.
The CSC passed the word to the Interagency Advisory Group, and the IAG notified federal agencies and the D.C. Department of Transportation, which got in touch with the bus and subway people, the snow crews and the press.
To the city transportation staff, it was not what you would call a surprise. Many of them had been up all night collecting the facts which had been fed up the line to the White House.
"We started talking about it Thursday noon," said deputy assistant John E. Hartley, in the office of deputy director Bernard O'Donnell at transportation weather forecasters and a meteorolagist we have under contract."
Gradually the snow forecast was moved up: from 6 a.m. Friday to 3 a.m. to midnight. When the first flakes fell at 12:30 a.m. Friday, Hartley got on the horn for still another conference call. The five trucks that had been on standby all night were alerted and by by 3 a.m., 100 sanding units were on the street.
"All this time we were in touch with the area schools and getting the conditions in the suburbs. Then later in the morning, when we had things under control, we cut back to 20 danding units."
One problem, of course, was that everybody's phones were tied up with citizens wanting to know what to do. Federal agencies have a teletype network for such emergencies, but that doesn't solve everything.
Hartley himself was frantically busy with his phones during the afternoon.
"I'm really sorry about the interruptions," he said, "but we let some of the girls go home early . . ."