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Published: Thursday, 3/20/2003

Washington residents prepare for worst-case scenario

BY KAREN MACPHERSON
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU

WASHINGTON - Security was heightened and tourism dramatically slowed yesterday as the nation's capital braced for possible terrorist attacks and a U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Gloomy skies and intermittent sprinkles underscored the somber mood of many in Washington's historic core stretching from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. Only high-spirited touring schoolchildren, freed from a day in the classroom, seemed immune from the sense of nervous waiting that infused much of the city.

Much as residents of Baghdad awaited bombing strikes, residents of the Washington area braced for potential terrorist attacks officials said could be triggered by a war against Iraq. Fighter jets roared protective sorties overhead, businesses in the nation's capital stockpiled supplies, and residents, including members of Congress and their staffs, reviewed emergency plans.

While emphasizing that the city was preparing for any emergency, Washington Mayor Anthony Williams canceled a trip to Phoenix where he was to make a pitch to Major League baseball officials about securing a team for the nation's capital.

The security perimeter around the White House was widened to include streets next to buildings on either side. Vendors who sell souvenirs in the area - including a popular stand where tourists can have their photos taken with a life-sized cardboard cutout of President Bush - were forced to relocate to nearby streets.

On Capitol Hill, more police officers - some armed with automatic weapons - were the only visible sign of the tightened security. But congressional aides said security would be amplified in a much more noticeable way - including tougher checking of tourists and the possible use of armored police cars - once war began.

There is no plan, as of now, to close the Capitol for tours, said Capitol Police spokesman Jessica Gissubel. “It would have to be a direct threat to the Capitol for us to do that,” she added.

Elsewhere, Coast Guard cutters patrolled the Potomac River, while officials at Washington's three airports began a second day of vehicle searches.

Tourists, usually in plentiful supply at this time of year, are noticeably fewer at Washington's top historic and museum attractions. Only a handful of tourists listened in the visitors' galleries as the Senate voted to ban drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The popular East Building of the National Gallery of Art was virtually deserted.

There were long lines Tuesday to get through the security check at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, the world's most visited museum. Yesterday, however, security guards said the number of visitors had visibly dropped off.

At the Washington Monument, traffic was once again moving normally as police peacefully ended their two-day stand-off with a North Carolina tobacco farmer who had driven his tractor into a shallow pool in nearby Constitution Gardens to protest government agricultural policies.

But the ordeal worsened the jitters among Washington-area residents about whether police are fully prepared to ensure the safety of citizens. The traffic gridlock that resulted when the stand-off forced police to close off heavily traveled streets near the Washington Monument highlighted what many already knew - evacuating the city in the event of an attack is an impossibility.

In Washington suburbs, many schools were open set aside time for special drills to ensure that students know what to do in the event of a terrorist attack. Nearby Fairfax, Va., County schools have canceled all public school field trips to Washington and New York. In Montgomery County, Md., public schools have banned all overnight field trips and trips beyond a 75-mile radius.

Meanwhile, tourists had made the trip to the capital were trying to make the best of it.

“You've just got to keep living,'' said Ruth Hawthorne, who is spending a week in Washington with a tour group organized by the Second Baptist Church of Las Vegas. “As our song says, `Let freedom ring.' That's what we're doing. We're not going to give up our freedom to do things like this. Terrorists want us to be afraid, but we won't give in.''



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