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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 01/ 5/2009

Inauguration Weather: The Case of Kennedy

By Jason Samenow

A soldier from U.S. Army Corps of Engineer's Inaugural Snow Removal Force prepares to move a car abandoned from the snowstorm on the eve of John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961. Image courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Inauguration planners should pray there's no repeat of what transpired January 19, 1961 -- the eve of John F. Kennedy's inauguration. An unanticipated dumping of snow resulted in chaos in the metro area. As the National Weather Service describes:

8 inches of snow fell and caused the most crippling traffic jam (for its time). Hundreds of cars were marooned and thousands of cars were abandoned. The president-elect had to cancel dinner plans and, in a struggle to keep other commitments, is reported to have had only 4 hours of sleep. Former President Herbert Hoover was unable to fly into Washington National Airport due to the weather and he had to miss the swearing-in ceremony.

How did forecasters err? How did the storm develop? How effective was the response effort? Keep reading...


On the eve of John F. Kennedy's inauguration (January 19, 1961), the Weather Bureau's morning forecast (shown above) called for the evolution of a nasty mix of precipitation. Snow was predicted to begin in the morning, change to rain in the afternoon and then back to snow overnight before ending early Inauguration Day morning. But in actuality, all snow fell, and a large amount in a short period of time.

Weather maps on January 19 (1 p.m.) and January 20 (1 a.m.). Courtesy National Weather Service.

As the weather map above shows (left panel), on January 19, low pressure developing in Tennessee Valley interacted with a large Arctic air mass over the Eastern third of the country. Note the big area of high pressure over Canada -- providing the cold air supply critical for snow. As the low headed eastward, snow began to fall in the middle of the afternoon. At the same time, temperatures quickly dropped below freezing. The temperature dropped from 34 to 28 degrees between 3 and 4 p.m. at National Airport as the snow picked up.

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the snow became so heavy that afternoon that federal workers were released from work early:

[Federal workers] mixed with scores of inaugural visitors, and a monumental traffic jam ensued. Throughout the region, thousands of vehicles ran out of gas or were abandoned. Pre-Metro public transportation came to a grinding halt.

The snow intensified as a secondary storm developed off the North Carolina coast, tapping abundant moisture from the ocean. According to National Weather Service records, visibility in snow at Reagan National Airport was a half mile or less between 3 and 9 p.m. and snowfall rates were likely in the range of 1-2 inches per hour (0.85" liquid equivalent fell during this time).

Snow continued overnight as the storm moved up the coast as shown in the right panel above. The snow was lighter and more intermittent, but temperatures plunged through the 20s and winds increased to 20-25 mph.

Throughout the storm, snow removal teams faced the daunting task of clearing not only the freshly fallen snow but also the abandoned cars. An U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Web site summarizes the successful effort to make the inaugural parade route passable:

The Engineers teamed up with more than 1,000 District of Columbia employees to clear the inaugural parade route. Luckily much equipment and some men had been pre-positioned and were ready to go. In the end the task force employed hundreds of dump trucks, front-end loaders, sanders, plows, rotaries, and flamethrowers to clear the way. District and Army equipment worked side by side to move more than 1,400 cars from the inaugural route. Another contingent of troops cleared the reviewing stands and bleachers at the White House and U.S. Capitol. Some 1,700 Boy Scouts joined in similar efforts along the parade route.

For the Inauguration Day itself, the weather turned cooperative for Kennedy's historic swearing in. The National Weather Service describes:

By sunrise, the snow had ended and the skies were clearing, but the day remained bitter cold ... [D]espite the cold, a large crowd turned out for the swearing-in ceremony and inaugural parade. At noon, the temperature was only 22°F and the wind was blowing from the northwest at 19 mph making it feel like the temperature was 7°F above zero.

Hopefully, inauguration planners will be ready for whatever the elements bring this year. One would think with the advances in forecasting, they'll have a better idea of what to expect than the Kennedy planners did.

Will it turn out our long-range forecasts for Obama will be more accurate than short-range forecasts for Kennedy? Time will tell...

By Jason Samenow  | January 5, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Inauguration, Inauguration Features  | Tags:  dc weather inauguration, inaugural weather, inauguration forecast, inauguration weather, inauguration weather forecast, weather inauguration  
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Off topic but I thought this was interesting...

Posted by: TheMot | January 5, 2009 12:01 PM | Report abuse

Hmm, actually, I'm praying that this WILL happen. Maybe then people will stay in and I can get a better spot at the inauguration. I've got boots...bring it on!

(Selfish? Yes.)

Posted by: LaurainNWDC | January 5, 2009 1:21 PM | Report abuse

Back in 1961 we didn't have the NAM, GFS, ECMWF or other models. It would be interesting to see whether today's models would have "picked up in advance" on the Kennedy snowstorm.

Early outlook on the Obama inauguration seems to point towards a high of 38 with dry weather. This is quite far out, however.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | January 5, 2009 1:31 PM | Report abuse

@ Bombo47jea

The Weather Bureau had a 'barotropic model' back then as well as graphical subtraction techniques which had some skill out to about 24 - 36 hours. A far cry from today/s NWP technologies.

Posted by: toweringqs | January 5, 2009 2:39 PM | Report abuse

Huge PNA!

Link to 500 mb analysis courtesy CDC map room...

Very cold and snowy...and +NAO!

Plot your own @

Posted by: toweringqs | January 5, 2009 3:14 PM | Report abuse

toweringqs: Pretty neat PNA pattern. Note that by going back just a few days (say Jan 16) you'll see the the development of the PNA signature was quite rapid. Models today are pretty good at predicting the PNA index up to 5-7 days ahead. However, back in the early 60's, the Pacific was truly data sparse - no routine aircraft obs and no satellite. I suspect therefore that current models run from analyses at the time - or even the latest reanalyses, - would have a tough time to predict this development more than a day or two ahead.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | January 5, 2009 5:12 PM | Report abuse

Those venerable ol' hand-drawn sfc maps are a work of art. Great nostalgia...

Posted by: ASColletti | January 5, 2009 9:33 PM | Report abuse


"..the task force employed hundreds of dump trucks, front-end loaders, sanders, plows, rotaries, and flamethrowers..."

Why don't we use flamethrowers anymore to clear snow?

Posted by: csh1 | January 5, 2009 9:39 PM | Report abuse

The flamethrowers caught my eye as well. Now that's the way to clear a road! :-D

Alas, someone would probably complain about them catching abandoned cars on fire.

Posted by: magicdomino | January 6, 2009 11:20 AM | Report abuse

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