Washington prepares for crush of Obama-mania

January 16th, 2009 - 9:47 am ICT by IANS  

Washington, Jan 16 (DPA) To hear Washingtonians tell it, Jan 20 will be either a great party or one big mess.It depends how they look at it as the US capital prepares for an influx of millions of visitors from around the country to witness Barack Obama being sworn in as the nation’s first African American president.

Organisers were distributing an estimated 240,000 tickets - including about 127,000 for the public handed out through Congress - to Obama’s swearing-in ceremony on the Capitol steps. But the wide grassy Mall beyond the ticketed area will be open to the masses.

Those lucky enough to get a ticket had to act fast. They were available only through members of Congress - about 200 tickets for each member of the House of Representatives and 400 for each Senator - and the flood of requests overwhelmed congressional office staff within days after the November election.

At one point, Mayor Adrian Fenty estimated the expected turnout at four million people, though the city has now downsized it to two million. That is still far more than the number of people who reportedly attended the previous largest inauguration - about one million for Lyndon Johnson in 1965.

The inaugural committee won’t weigh in on crowd estimates, but spokeswoman Natalie Wyeth said organisers “have seen extraordinary, unprecedented interest in people wanting to participate in events”.

A massive stage has been built along the Capitol’s west front, facing the Mall, along with accommodations for officials, the audience and television crews.

Lines through security are sure to be long. The congressional committee that plans the swearing-in has warned that it will be cold - average temperature is 3 degrees Celsius at noon. Umbrellas, baby strollers and large bags will be prohibited for safety reasons, with everything searched by hand.

Hotels were flooded with reservations. The city has about 29,000 hotel rooms and a little over 600 remained available in early January, Rebecca Pawlowski of tourism board Destination DC told DPA. The 98 percent occupancy rate compares to a normal occupancy rate for January of 50 to 60 percent and average bookings for inaugural weekends of 90 percent.

Many hotels boosted prices steeply, with an average cost of $700 per night, and had minimum stay requirements. The group had received requests from visitors seeking rooms up to 300 km away, where there still about 12,000 rooms available.

Out-of-town visitors can also rent private apartments or homes from residents seeking to pick up quick cash. Initially, rates ran as high $10,000 for a one-bedroom apartment, but prices dropped considerably as reality set in. Asking prices on classified site Craigslist are now closer to the $500 to $1,500 range.

Dealing with the throngs is sure to prove a headache. The day is a special federal holiday for government employees, meaning at least they won’t have to fight their way to work.

The city’s subway system plans to run rush hour service for a record 17 hours beginning at 4 a.m. Several stops will be closed and those attending the inauguration may have to march long distances to the festivities.

Anyone expecting to drive into town will also likely be stymied not just by a massive crush of traffic, but also the closure of several main streets in the city centre and the bridges that connect Washington to its Virginia suburbs.

The inaugural committee has added more standing room areas to accommodate the crowds along Pennsylvania Avenue to watch Obama and the festive parade on its way from the Capitol to the White House. Applications to march in the parade skyrocketed this year, inauguration committee spokeswoman Wyeth said, with 1,800 plus bidding to compete, compared to 300-400 in the past. Only several dozen bands, groups and floats made the final cut.

One unique response to the throngs of people - alcohol. Some city bars will stay open until 4 a.m. throughout inaugural weekend.

On inauguration day, this might prove helpful to reducing demand on the transit system, which is bracing to be overwhelmed. Transit officials are urging people to stay in the city centre as long as possible.

The day’s formal events will close with 10 official inaugural balls and dozens of unofficial parties. The official balls include one designated specifically for young people, another called the neighbourhood ball for Washington residents, one for Obama’s home states of Illinois and Hawaii, one for vice president-elect Joe Biden’s home states of Delaware and Pennsylvania, a ball for military members and five regional balls.

Unofficial events include a ball hosted by the Kenyan embassy and the Corporate Council on Africa featuring special guest Sarah Obama, the new president’s step-grandmother from Kenya.

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