Isabel strikes: Washington is braced for the hurricane

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The Independent US

In Washington yesterday it felt eerily like the days following the terrorist attacks of 11 September two years ago. Now as then it was a weekday, but again the streets were almost empty. Then it was numbed incomprehension; last night a city awaited with trepidation what might happen, and made its plans.

In Washington yesterday it felt eerily like the days following the terrorist attacks of 11 September two years ago. Now as then it was a weekday, but again the streets were almost empty. Then it was numbed incomprehension; last night a city awaited with trepidation what might happen, and made its plans.

We locals are starting to wonder: 11 September, the anthrax scares, terror alerts, the sniper killings, the great blizzard - and now Hurricane Isabel. Living at the nerve centre of empire is a bit like living in biblical Egypt during the plagues. Maybe the Almighty really is visiting his wrath on the impertinences of American power.

By mid-afternoon, one million households were without electricity across swaths of North Carolina and Virginia to the south. The peak of the storm was only due to hit Washington in the early hours of this morning, but by 11am yesterday the city's public transport had shut down, as the first harbingers of Isabel arrived. By late afternoon, howling winds and driving rain were lashing the capital. But this was only a foretaste of the 60mph-plus gales and six inches of rain expected overnight.

The Federal government shut down; restaurants, theatres and cinemas closed their doors. More than 2,000 flights at 19 airports on the east coast had been cancelled by last night. The visiting King Abdullah of Jordan cancelled his entire Washington schedule, President Bush took refuge at Camp David, Congressmen scampered back to their districts. Air Force One, the presidential 747, was moved from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland to the safety of a base in Georgia, 500 miles away.

North Carolina's Outer Banks (islands) were pounded with winds of up to 105mph as the storm moved across. The deck of an ocean-front hotel crumbled into the sea.

States of emergency were declared there, as well as in Virginia, Washington, Maryland, West Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania. Schools were closed and shelters opened to take evacuees with their canned food and flashlights. Nearly a quarter of a million people were moved from the lowest lying parts of North Carolina and Virginia. In the countryside immense damage to agriculture and livestock is feared.

Even in Washington flooding was expected as the storm drove 10ft surges into the Potomac river, which flows through the capital.

As usual at the onset of anything out of the ordinary in Washington, we ordinary citizens were bombarded with gratuitous, sometimes fatuous advice. A security bulletin at the Washington Post advised staff: "If you fear your house will come down around you, get into a bathtub and place a mattress over you."

My local supermarket was cleaned out of mineral water, bread and canned tuna - as if the Russians were coming, not a storm, which by midday today will be well on its way to Canada.

If there hasn't been a run on duct tape and plastic sheeting, that is only because we stocked up on last spring, when the colour-coded terror alert went from yellow to orange, and the government issued its guidelines on how to cope with a chemical or biological attack.

Normal news values have been blown away by the hurricane. Storms, of course, make wonderful pictures, but even the most mindless devotee of cable TV must have had enough of the endless footage of coastal residents hammering plywood over windows, and tempest-blown reporters in front of mountainous waves on the beaches of North Carolina, where Isabel made landfall at midday yesterday.

Local power cuts and the rising count of damaged sewage treatment stations are reported as if they were nuclear missile strikes.

Yes, Isabel is a nasty "weather event" (in American media-speak), a storm hundreds of miles wide, which will affect 50 million people or more. But as hurricanes go, she is distinctly middling, a category two on the Saffir-Simpson scale, with maximum sustained winds of around 100mph, and a far cry from the category five that it was classified as on Sunday.

In Asia, much more deadly cyclones and typhoons barely rate a mention; but the world power and the attendant media are not centred in Bangladesh or the Philippines. On the other hand, we should be mightily thankful for the technological progress that has made this coverage possible. The satellite pictures of the storm gathering in mid-ocean, and the computer projections placing Washington ever more squarely in its path, may have caused much foreboding. But at least we knew what we were in for.

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