Chilly Baltimore prepares to give Obama a warm welcome

Those planning to see the president-elect urged to bundle up

January 17, 2009|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,

With temperatures expected to remain well below freezing for today's visit by President-elect Barack Obama, Baltimore officials are urging parents to keep children younger than 6 away from the outdoor event at War Memorial Plaza, and are recommending that adults 60 and older consider watching from the safety of indoors.

"We are very concerned that people who come out and wind up waiting for hours are at high risk of developing hypothermia," Baltimore Health Commissioner Joshua M. Sharfstein said at a news conference that was held outdoors yesterday to stress the cold. "We don't want people in the midst of this important celebration to be suffering."

Obama, retracing the train route taken by fellow Illinoisan Abraham Lincoln, is scheduled to appear with Vice President-elect Joe Biden at an event beginning at 4:15 p.m. in War Memorial Plaza, in the shadow of City Hall.

The Baltimore appearance is expected to be the largest event of a whistle-stop tour that is carrying the president-elect to his inauguration Tuesday in Washington. The Presidential Inauguration Committee chose Baltimore because of the War of 1812 bombardment that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen "The Star-Spangled Banner."

The city plans to close off several blocks around the plaza before the event; the single entrance, at the intersection of Baltimore Street and Guilford Avenue, is scheduled to open at 1 p.m.

With as many as 150,000 expected to show up for the event in a plaza that holds only 30,000, and forecasters predicting a high today of 22 degrees, officials anticipate long waits in the cold. While medical workers will be on hand, Sharfstein said, they were "not a substitute for prevention."

"If people aren't prepared, we could have a big, big problem," Fire Chief James J. Clack said. "Especially near where the president-elect is going to be, we'll have limited resources."

Stephen Schenkel, who chairs the department of emergency medicine at Mercy Medical Center, offered what he called "the most motherly of advice."

"If you think you have enough on, put on another layer," he said. "It's cold."

Schenkel also warned attendees away from alcohol, which does nothing to warm the body but decreases awareness of the cold.

John P. Stewart, executive director of the city Commission on Aging, said those 60 and older who are planning to attend should bring a family member or caregiver - "and make sure you do not hesitate to ask for help if you have any concerns about your health."

Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III urged those planning to attend to consider watching the event from one of the video screens to be set up in the Inner Harbor.

"It's a great spot for families to operate from," Bealefeld said. "There is ample place for people to get warm, get food, hot cocoa, coffee - whatever."

As workers built risers in the plaza and set up 115 portable toilets, anticipation for Obama's visit grew. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a state co-chair of the Obama campaign, described the stop as a show of appreciation for a state that voted overwhelmingly for the president-elect in both the primary and general elections and sent volunteers to the neighboring battleground states of Pennsylvania and Virginia.

"Marylanders will know that he is aware that they played a significant role in his election," the Democrat said. "And it will give us reason to believe that he will not forget us when he gets in the White House.

"In other words, if opportunities come for Maryland to benefit, such as pilot programs and where there is some discretionary money available ... hopefully, Maryland will be on the top of his list."

While the event is free and open to the public, some local officials had access to VIP tickets guaranteeing optimal seating. At noon yesterday, City Councilman Robert W. Curran and his brother, former Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., stood in line at the will-call window at Oriole Park at Camden Yards to pick up theirs.

Councilman Curran became so cold waiting for just a few minutes that he began to question whether he'd actually attend the event.

"I'm going to make a game-time decision," he said, and expressed additional concern about the crowds: "It is going to be a logistical nightmare of enormous proportions."

Obama is scheduled to begin his Whistle Stop Train Tour this morning with an invitation-only event for supporters at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. His first public appearance is scheduled for 1 p.m. at Wilmington Station, where he is to pick up Biden, a Delaware Democrat.

In Maryland, their train is to slow as it passes through the Edgewood MARC station, which officials say will be the only station suitable for seeing Obama. The platform is to be closed, but the parking lot will be cleared for spectators. Obama and Biden plan to greet well-wishers from the back of the train as they pass about 2:30 p.m.

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