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Inauguration Day has a chilly history

This year should be close to ‘normal’

- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 17, 2013

President Obama's second inauguration likely will play out against better weather than his first one did, escaping some of the historically bad D.C. conditions that have plagued past presidential swearings-in.

National Weather Service meteorologist Nikole Listemaa said temperatures for Inauguration Day are going to be in the mid- to upper 30s, with partly to mostly cloudy skies.

She said inaugural celebrants have a 30 percent chance of seeing snow, but the Weather Service doesn't forecast accumulation days in advance.

Ms. Listemaa said Thursday that it didn't appear Monday's weather would be making the history books, "but of course, this far out that forecast can change."

"We should have a better idea over the weekend," she said.

The temperature at noon — the time at which the swearing-in ceremony takes place — during Mr. Obama's first inauguration was 28 degrees but felt more like the mid-teens because of cold, gusting winds.

Normal highs for the day in the District are 43 degrees with a normal low of about 28 and noon temperatures right around 37, but conditions have varied dramatically over the years.

Weather Service officials say the worst weather day for an inauguration was in 1909, when a snowfall that began the day before tapered off just after noon, leaving 10 inches of snow on the ground and brutal winds that moved the swearing in of William H. Taft indoors.

That ceremony was held March 4, the days inaugurations were held before the 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1933, changing the date to Jan. 20.

The 1873 second inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant, also held on March 4, saw morning temperatures of 4 degrees — still a record low for the month of March. By noon, temperatures had risen to 16 degrees but wind chills were between minus 15 and minus 30 degrees. According to some accounts, several West Point cadets and Naval Academy midshipmen collapsed while standing on the Mall for more than an hour and a half without overcoats. A bitter wind when Grant delivered his address made his speech inaudible to even those on the platform with him.

Of course, the most famous inaugural weather tale involved the death of President William Henry Harrison, who in 1841 gave a 1 hour and 40 minute speech on a cold day after riding a horse to the Capitol without a hat or coat. He is said to have caught a cold that day, which developed into pneumonia, and he died a month later.

Bad inaugural weather is also blamed for the death of Abigail Filmore, the outgoing first lady when Franklin Pierce was sworn in as president on an unexpectedly snowy day in 1853. She was said to have caught a cold that developed into pneumonia and died a month later.

Those ceremonies were also held on March 4.

The first Jan. 20 inauguration, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's second inauguration in 1937, a steady rain fell totaling 1.77 inches, which remains the record rainfall in the District for that date.

Since 1871, when official records were kept, Ronald Reagan had both the warmest and coldest January inaugurations. Noontime temperatures for his first swearing in, in 1981, at 55 degrees. Four years later, the noon temperature was 7 degrees after a morning low of minus 4 degrees. The afternoon's wind chills approached minus 20 degrees.

Most of the outdoor events were canceled because of the bad weather, and the inaugural address was delivered in the Capitol Rotunda. That year, like this year, Jan. 20 fell on a Sunday, so the public ceremonies took place Jan. 21.

The temperature for George Washington's second inauguration in Philadelphia in 1793 is unofficially said to have been 61 degrees. The warmest inauguration on record? That of Gerald R. Ford in 1974, when temperatures hit 89 degrees. But Ford, who took over the presidency after Richard M. Nixon resigned, was sworn in in August.

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