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Eclipse Planning and Safety: Eye Protection and Whole Lot More

A huge part of the messaging around total solar eclipses is about eye protection—and rightfully so. Watching the event unprotected can cause permanent damage and the risk is easily avoidable. Fortunately, the communications deluge is largely successful; there are very few documented cases of eye damage resulting from eclipses even though there is a total solar eclipse occurring somewhere on the planet roughly every 18 months.

However, populated areas in the path of a total solar eclipse know there is much more to the event than some safety messaging about using cheap, special glasses. Total eclipses create a festival-like atmosphere and cities and towns can easily have a crush of tourism that is two or three times their population.

On the afternoon of Monday 8 April, the United States will experience a solar eclipse. What’s called the zone of totality—where the Moon’s shadow completely covers the Earth, which obscures all of the sun except its fiery corona—will cut a swath just over 100 miles wide beginning in Texas and sweeping northeast through Maine.

The first large U.S. city in the zone is San Antonio, which will see the moon’s shadow begin to hide the sun at 12:14 p.m., reaching peak at 1:34 p.m. The eclipse will then unfold in population centers such as Dallas, Texas; Little Rock, Arkansas; Indianapolis, Indiana; Cleveland, Ohio; Buffalo, New York; and Burlington, Vermont. These cities, and thousands of towns and communities in the path, have been planning for the event, some of them for years.

The Washington Post has published a couple of interesting articles that look at what communities are doing beyond getting eye protection messages out. One profiles the state of New York’s director of interagency operations, Jessica DeCerce, who has been dubbed New York’s “eclipse czar.” From the article in the Post:

One hurdle she faced early on was skepticism from fellow officials, some of whom questioned why an eclipse required months of preparation, especially when there were urgent crises to tackle.

Jackie Bray, the commissioner of New York’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, recalled her initial reaction as one of amused incredulity. “We were like, really? It’s two years away,” Bray said. “Someone at my agency said, ‘We’re going to treat it how we treat it every day when the sun goes down.’”

No one is joking anymore. Bray credited DeCerce with keeping the eclipse “front and center” and conveying specific requests to the government machinery. “You don’t leave us guessing,” Bray said. “You say, ‘Jackie, I need you to be able to plan for 10 hours of gridlock in the Adirondacks.’”

New York is expecting more than 1 million people to converge into the path of totality for the event who could inject more than $100 million into the state’s economy. The eclipse also comes with what some officials described as a party-like atmosphere that will be like 1,000 Woodstocks—the infamous late 1960s music festival.

Probably the biggest area of preparation—outside of eye protection—is dealing with traffic. The last time the zone of totality cut a large swath through the United States, in 2017, one story in the Lexington Herald Leader shared how a 200-mile trip took 10 hours after the event.

Dallas will experience its first total solar eclipse since 1878. The city is expecting more than 450,000 visitors for the day.

“Officials expect highways and other roadways to be jammed, particularly in the late afternoon after the eclipse ends as people leave from their viewing locations all at once,” The Dallas Morning News reported.

Another issue was highlighted in the second Washington Post article headline: “Eclipse towns have two big concerns: Traffic and port-a-potties.” Larger municipalities are better equipped to handle the deluge of eclipse tourists. Small towns have to consider not only restroom facilities and traffic flow, but also a whole host of other issues:

  • Cellphone networks—where they exist—will be inundated, which, in addition to inconvenience can have safety implications if people cannot contact 911 dispatchers.

  • Speaking of emergency resources, services such as fire, rescue, and police, will be stretched thin for several days.

  • Some communities have only one or two major grocery stores, which could be picked clean.

  • Same for gas stations and fuel availability.

  • Many school districts, city offices, and county governments are closing. Some places have encouraged businesses other than tourism and entertainment to close.

It will be some time before the United States has another comparable total solar eclipse. In 2033, an eclipse will skirt parts of Alaska, and in 2044 parts of Montana and North Dakota will see a total eclipse. The next main event similar to this one will be 2045 when the zone of totality will swipe from northern California to Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Europe is in the middle of a veritable solar eclipse desert. A total eclipse will cut through part of Spain in 2026 and 2027, and that’s it until a 2066 eclipse cuts across parts of Russia. However, the 2027 eclipse that touches Spain will hit a lot of populated areas in northern Africa. Sydney, Australia, is included in the zone of totality of a 2028 eclipse, and an eclipse in 2034 will include Lagos, Nigeria, as well as other populated areas in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

Some additional resources for communities planning for solar eclipse:

Community Eclipse Planning—a guide created by Queensland, Australia in 2015.

Vermont Eclipse Guide (complete with recordings of monthly planning and coordination calls that began in January)

Indiana Total Eclipse Planning Guide