Sorry about the smell, but at least the vents are clean
Like explorers entering the chambers of King Tut, staffers returned to the Hart Senate Office Building - closed since October's Anthrax attack.
The goldfish and the bag lunches didn't make it. Nor did most of the plants. And the halls and offices smelled more than slightly of stale swimming pool. (Cleansing solutions, not poison gas, officials said.) But at first glance, the impact of the cleanup was nowhere near what many had feared.
Following the 99 days and a $20 million cleanup after the worst biological attack in American history, half of the US Senate and their staffs got their first glimpse of the offices they were forced to evacuate - and found that little had changed, except how it felt to work there.
The Senate historians on the second floor of the Hart Senate Office Building had worried about the effect of weeks of 85 percent humidity (necessary to kill anthrax spores), chlorine dioxide gas, and decontaminant foams on their 30,000 archival photos. There were also rumors of green mold on the walls. Not likely to be good for old documents, they thought.
They needn't have worried. Only the greenery succumbed - all but a hardy split leaf philodendron. "I'd neglected it so long, the plant probably didn't notice," says Donald Ritchie, associate historian.
But the experience of being the target of what government scientists are now calling the heaviest exposure of humans to anthrax ever recorded, has taken a heavier toll that the Congress is just beginning to realize.
What's most obvious is the disruption in daily life.
When the men in hazmat suits moved into the Hart building, fully half of the Senate lost their offices, including all the pagers, cellphones, house keys, palm pilots, and anything else left behind when offices were evacuated. They also lost opportunities.
"The efficiency of government has been really damaged by half the Senate having no place to go," says Senate Majority Whip Harry Reid (D) of Nevada.
For Senate Democrats, the delivery of an anthrax-laced letter to the Hart office of Majority Leader Thomas Daschle was a special blow. Democrats were just beginning to consolidate their control over the Senate after the defection of Sen. James Jeffords (R) of Vermont last June. With Republicans controlling both the White House and the House, the Senate became the place to rally an opposition. After October 17, it became harder.
Some Senate staff went back to their boss's home district, others doubled up offices or found themselves themselves dispersed all over Washington - much as Senate administrative work had been conducted prior to the Hart Building's construction in 1982.
The Senate historians, meanwhile, worked five to a desk or from car phones - and often from memory. All the files, documents, and must-do lists were left behind.
The human contacts inside the Capitol suddenly got warmer. People started saying "how are you" and meaning it. The goodbyes between all those who had shared improvised officespace in mailrooms, kitchenettes, and committee rooms, were genuine.
But relations with the outside world became a lot chillier.
Public access is sharply restricted. And Washington's army of lobbyists can no longer roam the corridors or call legislators off the floor. They're hoping to get some kind of "frequent visitors card." Lawmakers worry that the building they like to call the "people's house" is no longer.
Many on their staffs are also troubled by the apparent lack of preparedness on Capitol Hill, despite a steady drumbeat of hearings and predictions that the Congress was a prime target for biological attack. Near the top of the unanswered mail pile in one senator's office: an October 10 proposal from Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland on the need for more attention to the threat of bioterrorist attacks.
Nonetheless, it took two days for authorities to close the Hart building. At first, the Capitol Police draped yellow tape around a few offices and told people to stand back. Early briefings informed staff that the anthrax was only "garden variety" and that people should have to inhale at least 10,000 spores to be affected. "That's a lot," said Tommy Thompson, Secretary of Health and Human Services.
As the weeks moved on, the threat assessment was revised ever upward. Now, scientists say that even a single spore of this strain of anthrax could be deadly. Even as they declared the Hart building safe to reoccupy, the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that "there is a possibility of residual viable spores."
It's a threat many staff here say they are prepared to face. Carrie Markey handles the mail in Senator Reid's office. When her boss asked if she wanted someone else to do the job, she said no. "That's what I'm paid to do, and if anyone would know what is an unusual letter, it would be me," she said.
"I never thought it took courage to just open the mail," she adds.