Weather often a nonpartisan pain

Obama's Inaugural

January 19, 2009|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,

Blustery winds and bitter cold are chilling reminders that the hope and excitement of Inauguration Day can sometimes run headlong into brutal winter realities.

The inaugurations of past American presidents have been held in blizzards, washouts and arctic cold snaps. The festivities have been shoveled out, drenched and driven indoors.

Tomorrow's forecast looks mild by comparison. After a few snowflakes predicted to fall tonight, the weather will be mostly cloudy by the time Barack Obama steps to the lectern on the West Portico of the Capitol at noon. National Weather Service forecasters say temperatures will rise out of the upper teens to a high of about 32 degrees.

That's about 10 degrees below the average high for the date. Expect northwest winds around 7 mph. Skies will be mostly cloudy, with a slight chance of snow showers or flurries.

So visitors to Washington should be dressed for long hours in subfreezing cold. But it could be so much worse. What follows is a capsule history of the weather on Inauguration Day in Washington - where almost anything is possible.

Average temperature: The average forecast for noon on Jan. 20 in Washington is 37 degrees, with partly cloudy skies and a 10 mph wind, according to the National Weather Service. Chance of precipitation during the ceremony: 1 in 6. Chance of snow: 1 in 20.

But Mother Nature is capricious. The record high for the date is 70 degrees on Jan. 20, 1951 - but that wasn't an inauguration year. On the day Ronald Reagan was sworn in to his second term in 1985, the low was minus-2 degrees - still the record low for the date.

Presidents generally had better weather luck before 1937. The ceremonies then were held on March 4 (or the 5th if the 4th fell on Sunday).

Nicest weather: The best inauguration weather for a traditional date was Andrew Jackson's first swearing-in on March 4, 1829, a day described as 57 and balmy.

But for truly fine inaugural weather, you have to consider nontraditional dates and places.

The presidency got off to a pleasant start with George Washington's first inauguration in 1789. Delayed by bad weather and difficult travel conditions in March, it was not held until April 30. Dignitaries joined the president on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City for the brief swearing-in. It was sunny at noon and 59 degrees.

Gerald R. Ford enjoyed the warmest Inauguration Day. It was 89 degrees in Washington under partly cloudy skies on Aug. 9, 1974, when he was sworn in to replace Richard Nixon, who resigned.

Moving outdoors: The first outdoor inauguration was James Monroe's first swearing-in, on March 4, 1817. It went fine - it was sunny and 50 degrees in the capital that day. But for his second inauguration four years later, the city was snowbound and the ceremony was forced into the House chambers. That should have been a warning: Washington weather cannot be trusted.

The deadliest: The weather wasn't terrible when William Henry Harrison was inaugurated in March 1841. It was 48 degrees and overcast. But he was foolish. And verbose. There was a cold wind, and the president refused to wear a hat or overcoat during his horseback rides to and from the Capitol. He was similarly exposed while he addressed the crowd for an hour and 40 minutes - the longest inaugural address on record. He caught a cold, which turned into pneumonia and killed him a month later.

Another tragedy: Twelve years after Harrison's death, it was 35 degrees and snowy in Washington as Franklin Pierce was sworn in. Sitting on the wet platform while Pierce spoke was Abigail Fillmore, wife of the outgoing President Millard Fillmore. She caught a cold that day and died of pneumonia before the month was out.

Worst weather: William Howard Taft's inauguration 100 years ago was preceded by a March snowstorm that dumped nearly 10 inches on Washington. The snow downed trees and wires and snarled traffic and trains. Six thousand workers tried to clear the parade route, but more snow, sleet, high winds and freezing temperatures finally drove the ceremony indoors.

Rainiest: The first January inauguration, in 1937, was the wettest. It was 33 degrees with sleet and freezing rain on the morning of Franklin D. Roosevelt's second swearing-in. Before the day ended, 1.77 inches of rain had fallen on the city, still the record for the date. FDR rode back to the White House in an open car with a half-inch of water sloshing at his feet and then watched the parade from an open stand.

Coldest: Reagan's second inauguration, in 1985, remains the coldest on record. The temperature at noon was 7 degrees. Organizers moved the ceremony indoors and canceled the parade as the wind chill fell to at least minus-10 degrees. Curiously, Reagan's first inauguration, in 1981, remains the warmest January swearing-in on record. It was 55 degrees, with mostly cloudy skies.

Coldest March inaugural: Ulysses S. Grant drew a cold one for his second March 4 inauguration, in 1873. It was sunny and 16 degrees at noon in Washington that day. The high was 20, still the city's coldest high temperature for March.

Closest call: Eight inches of snow fell the night before John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961. Thousands of cars were abandoned. Air traffic delays kept former President Herbert Hoover from attending the swearing-in. Skies cleared by noon, but the temperature was just 22 degrees with a stiff northwest wind.

The festivities went forward anyway - outdoors. Kennedy arrived at the Capitol in a traditional silk top hat, breaking with the Eisenhower homburg. Heedless of the proven health risks, he doffed the topper to deliver his address. But he popped it back on afterward and survived the experience.

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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