Winter Weather Shuts Down Government Offices

By Jessica Gresko

Washington (AP) — If snow keeps 230,000 government employees home for the better part of a week, will anyone notice?

With at least another foot of snow headed for Washington, Philadelphia and New York, we’re about to find out. The federal government in the nation’s capital has largely been shut down since Friday afternoon, when a storm began dumping up to 3 feet of snow in some parts of the region. Offices could remain closed at least through Wednesday.

So far, the effects have been negligible. Many essential government services are performed at offices around the country, and about 85 percent of federal employees work outside the Washington region anyway. Others were working from home despite the snow. An IRS spokeswoman said tax returns should not be affected.

“Anything that is critical is going to get done,” said Linda Springer, a former director of the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees the federal work force of nearly 2 million workers.

David Fiore, who works for the federal government’s Export-Import Bank of the U.S., stocked up on groceries Tuesday in Washington and said he planned to do some work from home, including a 2 p.m. conference call.

“They’re open in Turkey. I’m getting e-mails from Morocco,” he said. “The work goes on.”

Philadelphia and Washington needed just 9 more inches of snow each to log the snowiest winters since at least 1884, the first year records were kept.

Even before the storm arrived in the nation’s capital, the House announced it was scrapping the rest of its workweek. Several hearings and meetings were postponed, including one planned for Wednesday on Toyota’s massive recalls.

Agencies from the Federal Communications Commission to the Federal Trade Commission canceled hearings and planned announcements because of the looming snow. Shuttering the agencies for a day costs the government an estimated $100 million in lost productivity and related costs.

Down Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House decided to move up by a day a Black History Month concert featuring Bob Dylan, Smokey Robinson and Natalie Cole. It had been slated for Wednesday, but was instead moved to Tuesday night.

President Barack Obama held a bipartisan meeting with congressional leaders ahead of the storm Tuesday and joked that it went so well that Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky had gone out to play in the snow.

“In fact, I understand that McConnell and Reid are out doing snow angels on the South Lawn together,” Obama joked as he made an unannounced stop in the White House briefing room.

Despite one of the snowiest winter's in Washington D.C.'s history, officials say the work must go on.

Despite one of the snowiest winters in Washington D.C.'s history, officials say the work must go on.

The snow started in the Midwest before moving into the Mid-Atlantic region, where utility workers struggled to restore power already knocked out by a weekend blizzard.

Schools were closed and commuters found slick, slushy roads from Minneapolis and Chicago to Louisville, Ky. Hundreds of flights were canceled in Chicago as the storm moved across Illinois, where up to 10 inches were forecast.

Powerful winds and snow were expected to hit Mid-Atlantic states by the afternoon, potentially dropping as much as 20 more inches on Washington and 18 inches near Philadelphia by Wednesday night.

New York City announced schools would have a rare snow day Wednesday, only the third in six years. Southwest Airlines and US Airways planned to halt flights out of Philadelphia at 8 p.m. Tuesday, and Washington’s airports expected flights to stop around 5 p.m.

Continental Airlines canceled all 400 of its Wednesday flights at Newark Liberty Airport, as well as several hundred more regional flights on affiliate airlines.

In Chicago, Southwest Airlines canceled all of its flights at Midway Airport through Wednesday morning.

James Allen, 25, of Northampton, England, arrived Sunday on the first flight to land at Baltimore’s airport after its runway reopened from the last storm. He was visiting friend Julia Tracey, 25, a nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The two were at a downtown grocery store Tuesday searching in vain for fresh herbs for a recipe.

Allen had planned to stay in Baltimore for a few days, but “it’s probably going to turn into a few weeks now.”

The storm brought out the best in some. In Alexandria, Va., a family living at the bottom of a hill on an unplowed street needed to get their teenage daughter whose cancer is in remission to an important doctor’s appointment.

Neighbors quickly converged, shoveling the entire street before many had even had cleared their own driveways. Up the street, children tired of playing outside in the snow created craft items and had an impromptu sale to benefit victims of the earthquake in Haiti.

In West Virginia, where 40 counties were under winter storm warnings, Gov. Joe Manchin urged people to make sure snow was cleared from roofs of public buildings to avoid a repeat of 1998, when roof collapses were blamed for at least three deaths.

In rural Maryland, a state police helicopter rescued a man stranded in a remote mountaintop home where he had been staying alone with no electricity since the storm this past weekend.

In the Mid-Atlantic region, power was still out for tens of thousands of homes and businesses, and utilities said deep snow was hindering some crews trying to fix damaged power lines before the next storm.

Michael Giambattista, 56, a truck driver from Elizabeth, Pa., had been without power since late Friday. He was staying at a Red Cross shelter near his home with his girlfriend and 13-year-old son.

“I’ve never been without power like this,” said Giambattista, who was trying to help keep spirits up among the more than 50 people at the shelter. “Mother Nature, you can’t battle her. She’s going to win.”

___

Associated Press writers Nafeesa Syeed, Laurie Kellman, Philip Elliott, Jennifer C. Kerr, Ken Thomas and Stephen Ohlemacher in Washington; Ben Nuckols in Baltimore; Dan Nephin in Elizabeth, Pa.; and Nancy Benac in Arlington, Va., contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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