Weather or not, crowds prepare for the inaugural

Unwelcome guests at festivities may be rain, sleet and snow

Presidential Inauguration

January 19, 2001|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Susan Marscellas was determined not to miss the inauguration's opening ceremonies at the Lincoln Memorial yesterday, even when cold rain began pelting her 77-year-old mother before the show started. So she ran to an oversized garbage can, grabbed the plastic liner and wrapped her mother in it until the rain stopped.

"Adrenaline will keep us warm now," said the shivering native of Salinas, Calif. "You get excited, and that's all you need."

As four days of inaugural festivities began yesterday, the weather threatened to turn nasty. Forecasters predicted rain for today's events and more rain tomorrow. Later tomorrow, the rain could turn to sleet and snow for the swearing-in and inaugural parade.

With slush in mind, the city spent yesterday playing defense.

At Lynelle Boutique, clerks were hurling pashmina wraps at desperate Texans caught in the chill. At the district's emergency management office, the "snow czar" was speed-dialing the National Weather Service for updates. At Occasions Caterers, chefs were throwing together ingredients for hot mulled cider - a last-minute menu addition to fend off inaugural frostbite. At Hargrove Inc., parade planners were figuring out how to transport their giant eagle float in wind and rain (remove its head and don't put it back until the last minute, they concluded).

Yesterday, a raw drizzle rained down at the opening celebration for George W. Bush, though by the time the president-elect strode on the stage, the rain had stopped, and only the thick clouds remained.

Of course, Republican revelers were ready to enjoy the day no matter what. Lorie Stetler carried wine in a travel mug and wrapped herself in her fake mink (it's warmer than the three real furs she has at home in Blanco, Texas, she insisted). After buying ski socks, boots and umbrellas, she and her friends were not looking for rain checks.

"Nothing - not sleet, snow or rain - will keep us away," said Stetler, an old Junior League buddy of Barbara Bush's. "Nothing!"

Some even looked for higher meaning in the dreary skies.

"It's only fitting that with all the pomp and circumstance, we have a little bad weather," said John McElveen, 49, who held his gloved hands over his 2-year-old son's freezing fingers. "There's a lot to celebrate, but we should remember the seriousness of this event."

At the opening ceremonies, Bush, Vice President-elect Dick Cheney and their wives sat in a heated pavilion for the patriotic variety show that began with Army parachutists and a military flyover ("They're lost in the fog!" groused one spectator). The festivities continued with the Rockettes, singer Wayne Newton, an appearance by boxer Muhammad Ali and others before ending with fireworks.

Plenty of rain-splattered seats remained empty, but supporters cheered ardently for Bush by the ceremony's end, when still-gyrating singer Ricky Martin pulled the president-elect to center stage for an ovation. The Latin pop star even got Bush to swivel his hips - albeit ever so slightly - to the music, but Bush remained steadfastly on message in his remarks earlier.

"I'm honored to serve, and I am ready to start," Bush told the crowd. And, he added, "a new administration is an opportunity for change and a new direction. That is the promise I have made, and a promise I will keep to give America a fresh start."

Throughout history, inaugural celebrations have been splattered with mud, hailed on, frozen out, snowed in and otherwise toyed with by Mother Nature. When the inauguration was moved from March to January in the 1937, the risk of rotten weather only grew.

When John F. Kennedy was inaugurated in 1961, more than a foot of snow fell on the capital and the National Guard had to be summoned to shovel out the city. Poet Robert Frost later said the glare off the snow temporarily blinded him, forcing him to ditch the poem he had written for the occasion and go with one from memory - "A Gift Outright."

In 1985, at Ronald Reagan's second inaugural, the temperatures dipped so far below freezing that the swearing-in was held inside the Capitol Rotunda, and the parade was canceled after musical instruments started freezing to the lips of band members.

And the worst inaugural weather story of all: William Henry Harrison delivered the longest inaugural address in history - 1 hour and 45 minutes - on a raw afternoon in 1841. He was not wearing an overcoat and died of pneumonia one month later.

This year, the 200th anniversary of the first inaugural in Washington, the weather continues to try to hog the stage.

"It's not a doubt - we're going to have precipitation," said Melody Paschetag, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. She described a storm system that began in Texas, Bush's home state, and followed him to the Northeast.

If the system stays south and east of Washington, it is likely to bring snow tomorrow, Paschetag said, but if it winds up directly over the city, rain is in the offing. "Whatever it is, it will be wet," she said.

Peter LaPorte, the district's director of emergency management known as the "snow czar," was on the phone with the National Weather Service at 7 a.m., preparing for the worst. At the opening ceremonies, he surveyed the empty seats and offered one conclusion: "Weather."

As for party planners, they weren't about to give up despite the dreary forecasts. For a Wyoming float honoring Cheney's home state, extra layers of clothing were being readied for the real-live outdoorsman pretending to catch trout. And workers were tightening the bolts on the steel cowboy atop the float's bucking bronco, fearful the rider would take off in high winds.

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