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Continued: Inaugural: D.C. is primed like never before

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ , Star Tribune
  • Last update: January 11, 2009 - 12:33 AM

WASHINGTON - Judging from the bumper stickers, the day is already known by a number: 1.20.09.

And by noon of that date, as Barack Obama is sworn in as president, it might be known by another number: a record-breaking crowd looking for a brief glimpse of history.

The demand on Minnesota's congressional offices for inaugural tickets signals what's in store: Twin Cities' Reps. Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum each had 198 tickets to distribute. They received 2,500 requests apiece.

Washington is used to crowds. But this time the city is shuddering.

Downtown traffic will be banned, bridges over the Potomac River will be closed, and security barriers will be everywhere, prompting this week's screaming headline in the Washington Examiner: INAUGURAL SHUTDOWN.

With a week to go, everybody is still wondering how the Metro trains and buses are going to convey the millions of expected revelers to the National Mall in the span of a few hours.

The answer is, they're not. Get ready to walk, America. And wear sensible shoes. On a normal Jan. 20, the city's noontime temperature is 37 degrees.

 "Not that bad," says Virginia resident Lora Pollari-Welbes, a native of St. Paul who plans to bike in with a friend.

Along the way, she figures shelter will be scant, and inaugural planners say to think twice about bringing young children. "It would behoove anyone who is just coming casually down to the Mall to carefully consider whether that's something they want to do," said Kevin Griffis, a spokesman for the Presidential Inaugural Committee.

Hardly a hearty welcome. But organizers don't have to worry about ginning up interest. This is about a guy who was compared on the campaign trail to Moses and Paris Hilton. America's first multiracial president. The dawning of a new era.

"The level of enthusiasm and excitement is intense," said Minnesota ex-pat Kevin Wolf, a Washington attorney. Wolf started Obama's grass-roots campaign in Virginia -- the Old Dominion state where the Democrats worked so hard to win. "But the flip side is that there's so much talk about what a logistical madhouse this is going to be, I'm wondering if people who would otherwise have tried to come are going to get spooked and watch the whole thing on TV."

Still, Wolf and his wife, Barbara Kanninen, a former professor at the U of M's Humphrey Institute, aren't taking any chances with the crowds. They plan to take their two young boys, sleeping bags, board games and DVDs, and spend the night in Wolf's office a few blocks from the parade route.

"It's a bit of urban survivalism," Wolf said. "But it's part of the excitement."

'Security on steroids'

Washingtonians have been reeling from accounts of road closings and ever-widening security perimeters. For example, Interstates 395 and 66, the two biggest highways coming into the city from Virginia, will be closed to personal vehicles inside the Beltway.

"This is security on steroids," Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., complained to the Washington Post.

But U.S. Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan says the agency is trying to be as unobtrusive as possible. What Donovan can't say is how many people the Secret Service expects.

Some of the original estimates, coming from Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty, put the figure at 3 million to 5 million or more. More recent estimates have cut those figures in half. Parking requests from bus tour companies have fallen below expectations.

But even the more back-to-reality forecasts sound daunting. A typical July 4th fireworks show on the Mall maxes out the city's transit system. And infrequent snowstorms -- this is January -- have been known to paralyze the entire region.

If it all sounds a little scary, city tourism officials say not to worry. "This isn't our first time at this," said Rebecca Pawloski, a spokeswoman for Destination D.C., the city's main marketing and tourism organization. "It's a city that's used to handling large gatherings."

But most people agree this is likely to be the city's biggest gathering ever, and some are reveling in it. Bar hours have been extended to 4 a.m.

"This is history," said Savino Recine, who owns Primi Piatti, a restaurant facing Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House. "This is the event of the century."

"Everybody is buying the Obama stuff," said K Street T-shirt vendor Tracy Wang. "It doesn't matter what color you are."

'Best behavior'

Area residents ready to skip the whole event have been putting their homes up for rent, looking for a big payday. Typical is a one-bedroom Georgetown condo being offered on Craigslist: $5,000 for the week.

"I've heard people asking for outrageous numbers," said Tom Trotter, an ex-Northwest Airlines union activist who now lobbies from his home a few blocks from where Obama will take the oath of office.

Trotter has received several rental inquiries from real-estate agents, but since he heard that the market has cooled, he has decided to attend the inaugural, putting off his annual ice-fishing trip to Minnesota.

This will allow Trotter and his wife, Wendy Klancher, to provide Inauguration Day hospitality to friends, many of them staffers in the Minnesota congressional delegation, which has been deluged with requests for tickets.

Twin Cities' Reps. Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum each received 12 times more requests than they had tickets. Sen. Amy Klobuchar got 5,000 ticket requests for her allotment of 365. With the state's Senate race recount still unresolved, Klobuchar on Saturday obtained a couple hundred more tickets to compensate for those that would otherwise go to the state's second senator.

Overall, organizers have made about 250,000 tickets available for the swearing-in ceremony. But the sea of people without tickets is expected to stretch from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial and beyond.

Also in the mix will be school, church and civic groups from Minnesota. Among them is Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who chaired Obama's Minnesota campaign. He is expecting plenty of excitement, but something short of frenzy. "This is an unprecedented event," he said. "But it's also an event where people are going to be on their unprecedented best behavior."

Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753

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