WASHINGTON – Buttoned-down official Washington is bundling up under its first snowfall of the year, with federal agencies open even as many staffers and students stay home — and off of the region's icy roads.
President Bush joked about taking his two small dogs into the snow for their morning walk. "Heh-heh. We had trouble locating one!"
The storm, glazing the East and South with icy precipitation, was dumping up to 10 inches of snow on the Washington area. It knocked out power to thousands of homes, prompted virtually every school to declare a snow day and mucked up roads for the relatively few commuters who ventured to work. The federal government remained open, but school closings inspired most parents to stay home.
Though many Washington streets were untouched by plows at midday, the driveways on the White House complex were scraped clean before noon. The snow lent a wintry touch to Bush's plans and the famous building itself. He was meeting with the leaders of equatorial Kenya and Ethiopia and lighting the Christmas tree just to the south of the White House, newly-decked with wreaths.
At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, one rare sign of life on Capitol Hill appeared in the offices of retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., whose 100th birthday was uninterrupted by the weather.
Elsewhere in Washington, the day turned out to be great for tourists, who seemed to outnumber staffers in some government buildings.
The Capitol hallways were empty, for example, partly because Congress weeks ago adjourned for the year. A few groups of well-bundled tourists had the Rotunda and Statuary Hall — the building's main attractions — to themselves early in the day. Outside, there were few signs of life at a massive construction project to build an underground visitor’s center. Cranes and earthmovers sat motionless and blanketed with snow.
A few snowy blocks west at the Labor Department, the normal morning bustle in the stately lobby was reduced to the occasional sound of squeaky snow boots worn by the few who entered it. In another rare scene, there was no line at the U.S. Postal Service branch in the building, making it the perfect time to buy stamps and mail holiday packages.
Meanwhile, a uniformed Secret Service officer standing guard outside the Treasury Department warned people to be extra careful as they made their way through a courtyard and up the building's long flight of snow-covered steps. Inside, many of the offices, normally open in full bustle, were locked. Bundles of newspapers sat untouched outside the doors.
At the nearby complex of local and federal court buildings called Judiciary Square, a coffee shop unlocked its doors to a handful of bleary-eyed people who managed to make it downtown. The shop had coffee but its shelves, usually brimming with muffins, bagels and other goodies, were bare.
Light snow was still falling as Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia huddled outside the White House with reporters following the meeting with Bush. Several dozen protesters braved flurries just outside the gates of the complex, chanting anti-Zenawi slogans and briefly chasing his mini-motorcade down snow-covered Pennsylvania Avenue as he left.
President Daniel arap Moi of Kenya, whose nation is bisected by the equator, drove off without addressing journalists.