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Washington D.C. escapes worst of storm Sandy

By Susan Cornwell and Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The nation's capital appeared to have escaped the worst of the mammoth storm Sandy on Tuesday, although concerns remained about the potential for severe flooding along the Potomac River.

Washington, D.C., suffered high winds and rains that brought down trees on some homes and flooded a few roads. But the area got off lightly compared to New York City and New Jersey, where Sandy came ashore on Monday night.

More than 4 inches of rain fell over the course of the storm in Washington, the National Weather Service said Tuesday. Although Sandy has moved on, weather officials said flooding was still a concern.

"Flood and flash flood watches and warnings are in effect over portions of the mid-Atlantic and Northeast states," the weather service said.

On Monday, the weather service warned that the storm was expected to cause the worst floods in 16 years along the Potomac River, starting on Tuesday night. This could affect the historic Georgetown neighborhood along the river and parts of the National Mall.

So far, the river's waters have swelled, reaching docks and some parkland, but have not yet caused more extensive problems. Washington Mayor Vincent Gray said the main flooding threat was over the next day or two.

"We need to be mindful of what could happen over the next 48 hours," he told a news conference.

As for Sandy, it "turned out a whole lot better than expected in the District of Columbia," Gray said. "We are prepared to be helpful if we can" to New York and New Jersey, he added.

Washington's Canal Road near the river was closed on Tuesday because of flooding, radio station WTOP said.

Power outages in the region appeared to be limited. Just over 139,000 people were without power Tuesday afternoon because of the severe weather, according to a Washington Post website tracking blackouts. The vast majority of these outages were in the suburbs of northern Virginia.

In Washington, 10,000 people lost power at the height of the storm, but the number had fallen to 2,000 by Tuesday afternoon, according to PEPCO, the local power company.

Federal agencies were scheduled to reopen on Wednesday after being closed for two days because of the storm. Federal workers will be allowed to take unscheduled leave on Wednesday, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management said.

Washington city government and schools were closed Tuesday, but Gray announced both would be open on Wednesday.

Gray said there had been 236 calls to the city government about downed trees -- but only 187 were actually trees down, "the rest were limbs and debris."

The Washington transit authority announced it was resuming limited rail service on the Metro on Tuesday afternoon. Normal service will resume on Wednesday.

Another sign that life was returning to normal: the DC Taxicab Commission said the surcharge it had authorized drivers to levy during the storm - $15 - expired at noon.

There were some reports of storm damage around town. In Washington's small Chinatown, a small metal piece of an ornate arch over the main street came loose and dangled precariously, causing police to block one lane of traffic below.

The White House announced President Barack Obama would eschew campaigning for re-election and stay in town Wednesday to oversee the hurricane response.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and Susan Heavey; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Stacey Joyce)

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