The federal government shut down yesterday because of the winter storm, but hundreds of federal workers did not get the word in time and began hazardous morning treks, hiking through windblown snow to subway stations and driving to offices on slick roads.
The Office of Personnel Management, which makes the judgment call on weather shutdowns, did not make the decision to close until 7 a.m. Most of the federal work force did not get the word for another 15 to 30 minutes, angering those employees who were in the middle of their commute or who had already arrived at their downtown offices.
"OPM blew it," said Anush Dawidjan, a personnel specialist at the Internal Revenue Service, who left her Southwest Washington home just before 7 a.m., trudged through snow and took Metrorail to an empty office, where she worked until noon.
Dawidjan said she kept logging onto her home computer to check OPM's Internet site before going to work. "I'm watching TV the whole time and meteorologists are giving worse and worse forecasts, and this thing is really escalating. They're saying, 'Stay off the roads.' And I go back on the Web site, it says the government is still open," Dawidjan said.
Margaret Crenshaw, chief administrative officer at the Postal Rate Commission, was on a Blue Line train about 7:30 a.m. when the train operator announced that the federal government was closed.
"I'm on the car, and 80 percent of the people get up and leave," she said. "A lot of people were grumbling about how they [would need to pay] for parking at Metro lots, and they paid for the train and it was all for nothing. . . . They should have made the call earlier."
But Janice R. Lachance, the OPM director and federal official who decides when the government should close because of bad weather, said the heavy snowfall "was a surprise to everybody, and you do the best you can under those circumstances."
Closing the government is one of the toughest decisions OPM makes. Yesterday's shutdown cost $60 million and disrupted federal activities across the nation, because Washington serves as the headquarters for Cabinet departments and most large agencies.
The last blizzard to close the government came in January 1996--the storm dumped 23.8 inches over four days--and followed a political shutdown caused by a budget impasse between the White House and the Republican-controlled Congress.
Lachance said her OPM staff began tracking weather reports Monday night. At 4 a.m. yesterday, OPM, the National Weather Service, Metro and state and local officials held a conference call. The forecast then, according to Lachance, indicated a "rush-hour impact" of two to three inches. At 4:45 a.m., she decided to put federal workers on "unscheduled leave," which means they lose a day of vacation if they opt to stay at home.
Two officials involved in the 4 a.m. call said participants traded information, listened to state and local transportation officials, and signaled they were leaning toward a regionwide liberal leave policy, not a shutdown. "It was not clear-cut from the beginning," said Joe Zelinka, the Council of Government's public safety program coordinator.
But weather service officials remember the call differently. "We told them it would be dangerous conditions," said Steve Zubrick, a weather service meteorologist in Sterling. He said Monday's 10 p.m. weather forecasts had predicted total accumulation of four to eight inches. And by 3:45 a.m. yesterday, he noted, the weather service had warned that "the early morning commute will be severely impacted with rapid deteriorating driving conditions."
While officials were trying to assess the weather's severity, Lachance was in Council Bluffs, Iowa, where she served as a precinct captain for Vice President Gore's campaign. "I'm always on the end of the phone for these calls," she said. "It doesn't matter where I am."
If there were any misunderstandings, they melted away a few minutes before 7 a.m. At a second conference call, the weather service offered revised predictions--"that it could be up to 12 inches of snow, with dangerous conditions," Lachance said. At 7 a.m., she and D.C. officials announced they were closing federal and city government offices.
That was too late for federal workers such as Bill Gray, who left his Stafford County home at 5:30 a.m. and made it about a mile down a dark county road before deciding it was too dangerous to go to work.
"They don't announce unscheduled leave and/or closing until well after I normally leave for my commute," he said. "My report time is 7 o'clock; it's ridiculous to make the announcement at 7."
CAPTION: Kevin Dopart skis on the Mall with his wife, Deborah Hensley, and their daughters Selena and Aletha.
CAPTION: Federal worker Lynne Hamette returns to College Park about 9 a.m. after having gone into Washington.