Washington struggles toward normality

Having Reagan National closed further depresses tourism, businesses say

Terrorism Strikes America

The Nation

September 26, 2001|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - An out-of-towner calling the city's tourism board this week was perplexed: Was the Washington Monument still visible, or had the terrorist attacks prompted federal officials to put it under wraps?

"Clearly, you can't miss the Washington Monument," said Brian Ullmann, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C., Convention and Tourism Corp. "But obviously, there's this feeling that you can't drive around, you can't walk around, you can't see this city."

The city has not hidden its famous obelisk, but it has been operating with something of a bunker mentality as it struggles with widespread disruptions since Sept. 11. The terrorist attacks have left Reagan National Airport closed, traffic arteries clogged, hotels facing cancellations, countless travel plans foiled and thousands jobless.

The general havoc deepened this week, when the worst tornadoes to hit the Washington area in 75 years tore from Virginia to Maryland, killing two people and injuring 50 while smashing property, closing more roads and burdening the region's already weary emergency management crews.

"People are worn down - physically and emotionally," said Chris Bender, a spokesman for the city's planning and economic development office. "Right now, it's really hard to go, `OK, let's just get back to normal.'"

To many, the most powerful symbol of the capital's inability to bounce back is the darkened National Airport where concourses are silent - except where about 1,500 out-of-work airport staff waited in line in recent days to register for unemployment benefits.

Federal authorities closed the airport after the attacks to determine whether it meets anti-terrorism standards, a move that critics say has not only inflicted wounds across the travel industry, but also sent a message to the nation that the capital is too shaken to fully open for business again.

"It's a monument to terrorism on the other side of the Potomac," said John Tydings, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. "It surely signals that the terrorists have attained their objective, and it puts a huge question mark in terms of returning some normalcy to our economy."

National Airport employs 10,000 people. But Tydings believes that up to 60,000 additional workers will be affected indirectly by the shutdown. National, which pumps about $100 million a year into the region's economy, is the only major airport in the country to remain closed.

"It's a ghost town right now," said Bob MacCracken, a manager at Charles Mann's All-Pro Grill inside the airport. The restaurant has lost $55,000 in sales since the strikes, said MacCracken, who hasn't bothered to go to work except to throw away rotting food.

"I'm just worried about what's going to happen when we do open." He said he has sent 17 workers to the unemployment line. "I don't know if there will be as many flights and people coming here."

Many travelers are in limbo.

Danielle Feuillan said she called US Airways every day for the past two weeks about rebooking her Oct. 3 flight from National to Providence, R.I., for her brother-in-law's wedding. Feuillan said ticket agents repeatedly told her they could not book her on a new flight without penalty until the day before she was to leave.

US Airways did not return phone calls seeking comment. But the airline says it is permitting passengers who were scheduled to fly into or out of National to rebook without penalty beginning five days before their travel date.

"It's just kind of annoying," Feuillan said. "I don't know how many flights I'll be able to choose from, what the times are or if all those flights will be booked. It's getting closer to the day we're leaving, and it's not settled."

Many out-of-town visitors have stayed home altogether. Marriott says it is considering closing blocks of rooms in its district hotels to cut electricity and housekeeping costs.

Red Sage, a restaurant two blocks from the White House, has closed its expensive downstairs dining room for the past week to save money.

This week, Ford Motors abandoned a plan to have promoters drive a 2002 Thunderbird around the city - frustrating chefs at Washington's Butterfield 9 who had created a new poultry dish in the T-Bird's honor.

Since the terrorist attacks, thousands of hospitality workers in the district have been laid off, according to tourism officials, who blame the closing of National.

"We're all just trying to survive," said Ralph Rosenberg, general manager of Red Sage, who said business is off 60 percent. "The president has to get on TV and say, `Hey, show your national unity, come to the capital and don't be afraid.' But how can he say that when the airport is closed?"

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