WASHINGTON — Barack Obama didn't measure the White House drapes before being elected president — as Republican rival John McCain accused him of doing — but Ron Walters' family effectively did.
Weeks before Election Day, Walters began fielding calls from relatives who were looking for beds, couches, floors or any other sleeping space available in his suburban Washington home in anticipation of Obama being sworn in as the nation's first African-American president on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20.
"I had 23 relatives call us to try to get space in this home, and that's going on everywhere around here," said Walters, a University of Maryland political science professor. "We're trying to figure out how to buy all the futons and where to put them. But we'll be one big happy family. This is going to be a big celebration."
It seems as if everyone on Earth wants to come to Obama's inauguration, especially African-Americans. There are about 90,000 hotel rooms in the Washington area and only a few are still available, for a price. Prices start around $400 a night, and for most there's a four-night minimum. One unidentified celebrant paid $1 million to book an entire 300-room Marriott. Hotels as far away as Richmond, Va. — 100 miles south — and Baltimore — 40 miles north — are raising their rates and getting bookings.
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"It's going to be like the Million Man March," said author A'Lelia Bundles, a Washingtonian and descendant of Madam C.J, one of the nation's first black female millionaires. "People are excited. It's almost like emancipation and Jubilee."
As many as 1.5 million people may come for Obama inaugural festivities, according to officials at Destination DC, the District of Columbia's official convention and tourism corporation. By comparison, President Bush's inaugurations each drew about 300,000 people, according to Rebecca Pawlowski, a Destination DC spokeswoman.
The Secret Service, which is in charge of inauguration security, declined to say what it's anticipating in terms of crowds or how it intends to deal with it.
"We understand the historical nature of the event and we're responding accordingly," said Malcolm Wiley, a Secret Service spokesman.
Destination DC's inauguration Web page has received more than 10,000 visitors since it went online last Tuesday. The national headquarters of black fraternities and sororities also have had to deal with a surge in phone calls from members who are looking for lodging and inaugural ball tickets.
"We've gotten lots of calls in terms of logistics, accessing tickets and how they can be a part of the activities with their families. This is the highest volume of calling I've received," said Ella McNair, a spokeswoman for Delta Sigma Theta, a 200,000-member African-American women's sorority. "We're encouraging everyone to contact their legislator. The first step is to approach them."
Members of Congress are responsible for distributing the 240,000 free tickets for the swearing-in ceremony but they're having trouble keeping pace with demand, to the point that the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies has capped tickets at five per family.
Ticket seekers who contact their members of Congress more often than not are asked to leave their names on a waiting list — if they're lucky. The office of House of Representatives Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., stopped adding names to its ticket request list Friday after being unable to keep up with telephone and e-mail demands.
Rep. John Spratt, a South Carolina Democrat and the chairman of the House Budget Committee, said that in less than a week since the election, he'd already had far more requests for tickets to the inauguration than for any previous such celebration during his 13 terms in Congress.
"We've been overwhelmed by the number of requests," Spratt said. "We've got several hundred people requesting about a thousand tickets."
Spratt said a good share of those who were seeking tickets were African-Americans, both constituents and nonconstituents in South Carolina along with some from the Charlotte area in North Carolina.
"They're local people who are very proud of the fact that Barack Obama will be president of the United States, and they want to be here for the historic occasion," Spratt said.
The thirst for tickets and lodging has created a cottage industry, with scalpers on Web sites such as eBay, Craigslist and StubHub seeking thousands of dollars for inauguration-related items.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the chair of the inauguration committee, said she was writing to some Web sites to ask them not to sell scalped inauguration tickets. She's also crafting legislation that would make it a federal crime to sell the free tickets.
In the meantime, sellers are getting while the getting is good. StubHub was listing tickets to Obama's swearing-in for as much as $5,350 each on Tuesday.
Some people also were auctioning off rooms Tuesday on eBay at modest chain hotels in the Washington area starting from $1,599 to $2,250.
Luxury hotels are looking to cash in on Obama's coattails. Washington's Mandarin Oriental is offering a "Presidential Privilege" package for $200,900 that includes four nights in the hotel's 8,000-square-foot Presidential Suite, designer outfits for inaugural events by Ralph Lauren, a chauffer-driven Maserati Quattroporte, dinner for eight at the hotel's restaurant and daily spa treatments.
Residents eager to turn an inauguration profit are renting out their more modest digs, but visitors still can expect to pay hefty prices. A four-bedroom house in Northwest Washington is available on Craigslist at $35,000 for two nights with a chauffer-driven black Mercedes thrown in.
Another entrepreneur on Craigslist wants $30,000 for the weeklong rental of a five-bedroom, 8,500-square-foot home in suburban Washington.
"There's very little left in D.C., especially by affordable standards," said Delta Sigma Theta's McNair.
(James Rosen contributed to this article.)
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