With less than a month to go before the Great American Eclipse of 2017, astronomy buffs all over the world are getting excited, and city officials across the United States are getting nervous.
On August 21, a total solar eclipse—the first in the continental United States since 1979—will darken a swath of the country from Oregon to Georgia. Along a 70-mile-wide strip in the middle of that path, the eclipse will achieve "totality": The moon will completely block the sun, and the day will briefly turn to night. For real eclipse fans, nothing but totality will do, so they are flocking to towns within that strip to see the thing in person.
For hoteliers, restaurants, and retailers along the path of totality, the massive influx of visitors could mean a huge payday (or three). But for city officials responsible for delivering services to those visitors, the event could be more akin to a natural disaster.
Here Come the Crowds
Take, for example, Idaho Falls. This little city of 60,000 in the high desert of southeastern Idaho is expecting somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000 visitors the day of the eclipse.
The city certainly has a full roster of eclipse-related activities planned: The city’s Museum of Idaho is an official NASA viewing location, so there will be lectures by NASA experts, instruction on how to safely view the eclipse itself, and opportunities to look through a solar telescope. The day of the event, NASA cameras will be filming the scene in Idaho Falls as part of its nationwide webcast (with running commentary by Jim Green, the agency’s director of planetary science).
If that’s all too geeky, the city will also be hosting a variety of entertainment, including a rubber duck race in the Snake River, a Moonfest music festival, and separate performances by Brothers Osborne and a Pink Floyd tribute band. Dark Side of the Moon, anyone?
But the city is less concerned about entertaining the hordes than it is about housing and feeding them.
According to TripAdvisor and other booking sites, as of the middle of July there were zero hotel rooms available in Idaho Falls the night of August 20. Which is not to say there’s nowhere to stay: Area hoteliers were reportedly holding back a few rooms for late bookers (with deep pockets). Entrepreneurial locals were also picking up some of the slack: One nearby ranch—with a 5 bedroom house plus 15 acres of land for camping—was advertising itself on the Vacation Rental by Owner website for $10,000 a night; someone else was renting an RV for $838. A month ahead of the event, AirBnB still had some listings available, most of them for RV and tent campsites in local yards.
(Tip: Those willing to camp can also check out the Eastern Idaho Eclipse website, which lists numerous camping options in that part of the state. Before you book a site, be sure to ask about water and sanitation: Many of the local camping opportunities are advertised as “dry,” meaning they have neither.)
City Officials Prepare for Influx
Feeding all those guests is a big concern. “We obviously want to make sure people can eat,” says Chip Schwarze, who heads up the local chamber of commerce, “But the strain on restaurants will be incredible.” He notes that the city is coordinating with local purveyors to set up a food court along the city’s riverfront. City officials are also urging local grocers to stock up well ahead of time—not only to be prepared but also to ensure delivery trucks avoid the epic traffic that’s expected the weekend ahead of the eclipse.
Idaho Falls and the state of Idaho are preparing for the possibility of “hurricane” traffic—in which all lanes on two-way roads are reconfigured to head in one direction. Even then, officials are concerned about gridlock, and the possibility that late arrivals on the 21st will simply pull off the road to camp—potentially sparking wildfires in the dry roadside brush.
City authorities are, in fact, implementing the same sorts of protocols that would go into responding to an actual hurricane, putting out the call to neighboring communities for help in supplying things like portable toilets and extra emergency responders. The cell network is also vulnerable: This past July 4, when an estimated 100,000 visitors came to town for the festivities, the local cell system crashed. The eclipse crowds could be twice that or more.
So for Idaho Falls this August 21, it’s going to be all hands on deck. “Nobody’s going on vacation,” says city spokesperson Kerry Hammon. City officials are asking local residents to pitch in—to be ready to tell out-of-towners where the nearest park or hospital is, to stock up on water and maybe hand some out. And they’re also asking visitors to do their part—to arrive as early as possible, to bring their own food and water, to be prepared for enormous lines wherever they go, and to pick up after themselves. That last part really worries Chip Schwarze: “Cleaning up afterward is going to be the worst.”
Check out the map below to see the path of the eclipse.