Small Towns Brace for Big Eclipse Crowds on Aug. 21


People prepare to watch an annular solar eclipse, at the Estancia El Muster, 1600 km south of Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Feb. 26, 2017. America's enthusiasm for the first solar eclipse in 38 years has been overwhelming small towns. ALEJANDRO PAGNI/AFP/Getty Images
People prepare to watch an annular solar eclipse, at the Estancia El Muster, 1600 km south of Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Feb. 26, 2017. America's enthusiasm for the first solar eclipse in 38 years has been overwhelming small towns. ALEJANDRO PAGNI/AFP/Getty Images

On August 21, a magnificent solar eclipse will cut a path across the full length of the continental United States for the first time since 1918. (In 1979, an eclipse crossed the northwestern states.) From South Carolina to Oregon, more than 12 million Americans live inside the path of totality – the route where the moon will completely block out the sun -- getting a very rare chance to view this event. In addition, hordes of eager eclipse-watchers are expected to travel to the path of totality, with many of the best viewing sites centered around small towns.

In Rexburg, Idaho, population 28,000, the eclipse will last a full two minutes and 17 seconds, and low summer rainfall means a high likelihood of clear skies. Rexburg is also located close to highway I-15, making the small town (and nearby Idaho Falls) the closest eclipse driving destination for 38.5 million people living anywhere from Utah to Southern California.

Despite high-end estimates in the hundreds of thousands, Rexburg city officials are planning on between 40,000 and 80,000 visitors descending on the town in the days leading up to the eclipse. To prepare for the influx of tourists, the city approved a $205,100 solar eclipse budget, which includes overtime pay for all police, fire and emergency workers, $7,200 for porta-potties and $400 for solar eclipse glasses for city employees.

Rexburg residents are being urged to buy gas and shop for food at least a week before the eclipse. They're being warned that cell and internet service might go dark do to network demand, and that strangers might attempt to camp on their front lawns. Local businesses are being told to plan food and stock deliveries early, to expect a lot of cash transactions and "customers" who may mainly be interested in using their rest rooms.

Lieutenant Mike Courtney is a police officer in the Madison County Sheriff's Office, which covers Rexburg. He says that every single cop will be on duty from August 18 through August 22, and that they'll be spread out across town to avoid being held up by gridlock traffic.

"It's not just a matter of how many people are going to show up, but there are going to be people from all over the world," says Lt. Courtney, "so we're going to have language and communication barriers."

Hotels and authorized campsites in Rexburg have been fully booked for months. Some residents are putting their backyards on Airbnb for $250 a night. (And someone is offering a five-bedroom house for $1,000 per night.) Lt. Courtney said that officers will "make contact" with people sleeping in parked cars and folks in unauthorized camping spots, but that enforcement decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis.

For cops and other emergency workers in smaller towns, the eclipse is a mixed blessing.

"As a person, I'm eager to see it. It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing," says Lt. Courtney. "As far as planning for emergency management, I'm very excited for August 23."

Beatrice (pronounced bee-A-trice), Nebraska, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) south of Lincoln, is even smaller than Rexburg, with a population of around 12,000. Beatrice is located smack on the centerline of the path of totality, providing residents and visitors with a total eclipse lasting around two minutes and 35 seconds.

Asked how many people the town expects for the eclipse, Beatrice Police Chief Bruce Lang responds, "That's the $6 million question. We don't really know. We've heard estimates anywhere from 25,000 to 125,000." He says that 60,000 to 70,000 would be a "relatively manageable number," but if they hit 100,000, "it will be pretty chaotic."

When planning and preparing for an event like this, explains Chief Lang, the first step is to assess the type of crowd that's going to show up.

"If you have a Sturgis type of event," says Chief Lang, referring to the annual motorcycle rally in South Dakota, "you have one type of crowd. If you have an eclipse, it's a far different type of a crowd. Your logistical issues need to change."

With a relatively mellow "science-type" crowd, Chief Lang is mostly concerned about providing emergency medical services and clearly directing visitors to the right locations. Beatrice police and fire departments will have extra staff on duty, plus a few more ambulances borrowed from nearby towns. They will be broadcasting traffic and event updates on a local AM station and posting electronic signboards directing cars to off-site parking and shuttles. Unauthorized camping isn't a problem.

"This is rural Nebraska," says Chief Lang. "Our parks are very large. If someone wants to tent camp or pull their camper into a park area and just camp there without electricity, we're going to be fine with that."

Over in Carbondale, Illinois (population 26,000), preparations for the August eclipse have been ramping up for over a year. The town has the notoriety of boasting one of the longest total eclipse durations in America at nearly two minutes and 40 seconds.

Carbondale is home to the University of Southern Illinois, which is hosting one of NASA's live eclipse broadcasts at its football stadium. USI students will move into their dorms just a week before the eclipse, adding 15,000 to 20,000 students and their parents to the throngs that are expected to converge on the town in the days prior to the big event.

"I wish I could get a number," says Carbondale Fire Chief Ted Lomax. "It's gone anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 to 200,000."

Chief Lomax will have all 30 of his firefighters on duty starting from 6 a.m. on the morning of the eclipse, and they'll divide up between the city's two fire stations for maximum coverage. The chief says that planning for a massive and unpredictable event like this is a lot like planning for a disaster. You need to think of worst case scenarios. In Carbondale's case, that's a train derailment.

"The Canadian National Railroad runs right through town," says Chief Lomax. "When you're hauling massive amounts of hazardous materials, which all railroads do, a lot of times they aren't allowed to take things into major metro areas."

Most days Carbondale doesn't qualify as a major metropolitan area, but for that one August weekend, it will be. They've alerted the Canadian National Railroad, which will temporarily reroute all trains to accommodate the eclipse crowds.