Hurricane Ivan roared toward the Gulf Coast yesterday -- and rippled across the federal workforce.

Numerous government employees found their electronic access to their accounts in the Thrift Savings Plan was cut off Tuesday as federal offices shut down in New Orleans, the home of the Agriculture Department's National Finance Center.

The center keeps the books for the TSP, a 401(k)-type program serving about 3 million members, and processes biweekly payrolls for about 540,000 government employees -- about half of the federal workforce.

Jerry Lohfink, director of the National Finance Center, said yesterday that employees should not worry about their TSP and payroll accounts. Databases were copied onto tapes, which were trucked to the New Orleans airport and flown to a disaster recovery center in a northeastern state, he said.

The center's staff drills every six months for such emergencies and "to them, this was nothing more than a reflex action of what we have done in drills," Lohfink said yesterday in a telephone call from Hammond, La., where he has gone to ride out the storm.

Patricia Healy, acting chief financial officer for the Agriculture Department, praised the center's staff members for an orderly shutdown. "They were extraordinarily prepared," she said.

The center is on property in eastern New Orleans, above sea level, that is owned by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Under a best-case scenario, based on yesterday's storm forecast, the finance center will start reopening tomorrow, Lohfink said.

Until the center resumes operations, either in New Orleans or at its backup site, TSP will not be processing loans, withdrawals and interfund transfers. On its Web site yesterday, TSP advised participants that "we anticipate service will be restored no later than Monday."

On Monday, TSP will start updating accounts, using share prices for the day when the transactions should have been conducted, ensuring that the value of all accounts is current.

"Investments will continue to be made based on current contributions levels," said Tom Trabucco, the TSP spokesman.

Lohfink said the disruption caused by the hurricane could have been worse. Much of the government is between billion-dollar pay periods, Lohfink said, and the center is not scheduled to start its next round of large-scale payroll processing until Sept. 22.

About 1,650 federal employees who work at the National Finance Center have scattered across Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas to avoid Ivan. In all, about 27,000 federal employees are in the storm's path, the Office of Personnel Management said. Many of them work on military bases and at veterans hospitals in the Gulf Coast states.

Yesterday, Kay Coles James, the OPM director, said she had sent a memo to agency heads urging them to take advantage of personnel flexibilities that will help speed the cleanup after the storm.

Debating HSAs

An effort to prevent the Office of Personnel Management from offering "health savings accounts" to federal employees and retirees was turned down by the House yesterday on a vote of 223 to 181.

The amendment, designed to keep HSAs out of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, was offered by Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) just two days after OPM announced that 18 health plans would offer HSAs to government workers next year.

Moran said HSAs "are untested" and "will jeopardize the quality and raise the cost" of FEHBP. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) countered that OPM has set HSA premiums at levels high enough to ensure that they do not adversely affect the overall program.

On a separate issue, the House approved an amendment that would prohibit the Internal Revenue Service from hiring companies to collect delinquent taxes.

The amendment was sponsored by Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who said that confidential taxpayer information and debt collection should be left in the hands of IRS employees. She was supported by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who said the amendment would "ensure fair treatment" of taxpayers.

The Capito amendment was approved on a voice vote during debate on a fiscal 2005 spending bill.

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com