D.C. Blows Itself Away

High wind, blowhards, and public safety in the capital


At 11:00 a.m. on Thursday, Hurricane Isabel was still two hours from making landfall near Ocracoke Island, at the southern tip of North Carolina's Outer Banks. Yet at that moment, Washington, D.C.'s Metro system, hundreds of miles to the north, stopped accepting bus and subway passengers, and began closing down. D.C.'s public-transportation shutdown had been announced Wednesday evening, and predictably froze activity in the capital. Indeed, that seems to have been its purpose.

The surprising decision gained national attention and deservedly sealed the capital's reputation for being—to put it kindly—weather-averse. After all, bad weather was not forecast for the city until the evening hours; it was neither windy nor raining at 11 in the morning. Eventually, of course, the wind was to blow hard enough to topple a great many trees, and to knock out power to hundreds of thousands of customers. But why did the system close when it did?

The chairman of Metro's board, Jim Graham, told The Washington Post that the decision to close was "part of a coordinated action to get people to stay at home." That was interesting: Since when has it become the role of transportation officials "to get people to stay at home"? Their apparent role until now has been to provide dependable transportation; the decision to use the system or not has generally been left to customers.

A Metro spokeswoman explained Wednesday's shutdown decision this way: It will "give people a chance to plan what to do… Folk may decide not to be out in the high winds at all." Well, folk may indeed have decided that, or they may not have, depending on a myriad of personal factors that Metro was in no position whatsoever to weigh. Moreover, canceling service didn't exactly "give people a chance to plan what to do"; a more accurate way to put it is that it sent those who depended on the system scrambling for alternatives. If they couldn't come up with any, they were left in a wholly untenable position.

That was largely true of the city as a whole. "Metro's decision had a cascading effect," as the Post put it, "with other rail services and even the city and federal governments deciding to close."

It had a "cascading effect," all right. The local city government was otherwise going to try to keep going; the mayor had decided to offer "liberal leave" to city employees, but otherwise stay open for business. Metro's shutdown forced its hand, as it forced the hand of countless offices, businesses, and citizens throughout the national capital region. Indeed, officials appear to have closed down the federal government only after being apprised of Metro's decision. Some local elected figures did express doubts about the resulting state of affairs, and called the city's total shutdown "overly cautious." But they were too late.

The problem with Metro's decision wasn't one of caution, however; the system's officials should be cautious. If officials had really shut the system down because employees and riders were in danger, no one could reasonably have objected. But that isn't why they closed the turnstiles; they did so, in their own words, to keep people home, and that's an act of moral overbearance. That's not their role.

Metro, which has never before dealt with an oncoming hurricane, was originally going to adopt the rules that Miami's experienced transportation system uses, and curtail service once sustained winds reached 40 mph. Although a contingent plan like that would have resulted in some uncertainty, it would have made sense under the uncertain circumstances. When they chose instead to close down, they crossed they line from providing safe service to exerting moral authority.

As it happens, the first gust of wind above 40 mph was measured at Reagan National Airport sometime after 5:00 p.m. (and sustained winds never reached that force at all). At that point, Washington's citizens had been scrambling for six hours begging rides, hoping for a cab, or gazing wistfully at visitors tooling around town on the tourist trolleys, the privately owned tour service that continued to operate for hours.