Big chill brings Washington to its knees

THE Lorena Bobbitt trial seemed to be the only public activity continuing in the Washington area yesterday as the federal government closed down to conserve power during the worst winter weather to hit the capital for more than 10 years. Non-essential businesses were ordered to shut by the mayor. Government offices are to reopen today.

Already at least 93 people have died - compared with 47in the Los Angeles earthquake - in the seven days of ice and snow which started to hit the north and east of the country last Friday. In parts of Michigan the temperature fell to minus 52 degrees Fahrenheit. States of emergency were declared in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia.

In Washington snow began to melt earlier in the week then, when it suddenly got colder, covered streets and pavements with a coat of lethal ice. The capital is not used to bad winter weather and the city government was slow to put down sand and salt.

Schools closed but businesses stayed open. The Potomac Electric Power company, which supplies the capital, found offices were sucking in massive amounts of power to keep warm. At the same time people who stayed at home with their children were turning on the lights and using more heat.

By Wednesday the power and gas companies warned of a catastrophe unless demand dropped. Offices in central Washington were asked by power companies 'to drastically cut back electricity use to prevent widespread, uncontrollable outages in the region'. Rolling power cuts had already started affecting 20 million to 30 million people.

Later that night, as fresh snow began to fall, the mayor, Sharon Pratt Kelly, declared a state of emergency and ordered all non-essential businesses to close.

Meanwhile, police in Manassas, in Washington's north Virginia suburbs, have shown a firm sense of priority by ensuring that, whatever happens, sheriff's deputies pick up the jury in the Lorena Bobbit trial from their homes every morning and deliver them to court.