The Austin Chronicle

https://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2024-03-08/total-solar-eclipse-to-draw-crowds-of-tourists-to-town/

Total Solar Eclipse to Draw Crowds of Tourists to Town

The once-in-a-lifetime darkness is coming to Central Texas

By Robyn Ross, March 8, 2024, News

At 1:36pm on Monday, April 8, the sun will disappear, and the sky over Austin will go dark.

Perhaps you saw the partial eclipse in August 2017 or caught the annular “ring of fire” eclipse last October. A total solar eclipse – when the moon passes between the sun and the Earth, completely blocking the sun – is an entirely different experience. A strip of land in the moon’s shadow, called the path of totality, is plunged into twilight in the middle of the day. Those who have witnessed a total eclipse say it’s a mystical, awe-inspiring, even life-changing event.

Local officials have just over a month to finish preparing for the eclipse and for the thousands of visitors who will travel to see it.

No one knows exactly how many people are coming to Austin. Most estimates of eclipse visitation come from GreatAmericanEclipse.com, the project of eclipse chaser and geographer Michael Zeiler. His model is based primarily on population data and the placement of major highways. It assumes Texas will have better weather, and thus more visitors, than spots farther north.

Zeiler’s model, which he said proved accurate for the 2017 eclipse, projects that up to 1.08 million people will travel by car to a Texas destination for the eclipse. Zeiler has forecasted visitation for a few towns in the path – Kerrville should prepare for a whopping potential 488,000 guests – but he says Austin’s number is harder to predict.

Because it’s at the edge of the path of totality, it’s not as desirable a destination as towns farther west. But out-of-state visitors heading to those towns will fly into Austin or San Antonio, and that weekend is already a busy one here: the Capitol 10,000 race is Sunday morning, and the CMT Music Awards are Sunday night. Plus, April is a popular time to visit Central Texas.

“I would not say that we are actively promoting our city as a place to come see the eclipse, because we know that they’re already coming,” says Wesley Lucas, Visit Austin’s director of communications. Visit Austin’s survey of hotels indicates that, for eclipse weekend, Downtown hotels are at 73% occupancy and hotels citywide are at 50% occupancy – twice the advance bookings typically seen this time of year. (For context, Formula 1 weekend finishes with hotels at 85% to 95% occupancy.)

Anticipating overwhelming visitation, many Hill Country towns have been holding town hall meetings to help residents prepare, and some have appointed an eclipse coordinator to lead preparations. School districts have canceled classes to reduce traffic. Some towns are hosting a large public viewing in a centrally located park.

Austin, a larger city more accustomed to hosting major events, is handling things differently.

Astronomy educator Lucia Brimer and Hill Country Alliance Night Sky Program Manager Dawn Davies were two of the first Austinites to push for eclipse readiness. By September 2022, they were convening monthly meetings with an education-oriented task force that included representatives from the Thinkery, UT-Austin, the Austin Astronomical Society, and Austin Community College. The group’s primary aim was to coordinate their dispersed eclipse-day activities.

Traffic management and emergency preparation were not in the group’s wheelhouse.

So, on Nov. 2, Brimer, Davies and a task force colleague testified before City Council in support of a resolution sponsored by Council Member Alison Alter directing city staff to create a plan for the eclipse by Feb. 1. The resolution, which Council approved, asked staff to launch a campaign to make the public aware of the eclipse; disseminate safety information through multiple alert systems and in multiple languages; host viewings at libraries and parks; and anticipate increased demand for emergency services.

The Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management released the city’s response on Feb. 27. The memo says the department plans to share information through a press conference in early April – shortly before eclipse day – and points residents to readycentraltexas.org/eclipse, where eclipse and eye safety information can be translated into multiple languages. Police, fire and EMS are prepared to increase staffing around April 8, and Homeland Security has been coordinating with the 10-county Capital Area Council of Governments (CAPCOG) and TxDOT on safety and traffic issues.

At a Feb. 21 meeting of CAPCOG emergency managers, attendees discussed plans to provide fuel for emergency vehicles even if gas stations run out. They reviewed the communications channels first responders will use in the likely event that cell networks in the western counties are overwhelmed. They talked about how to handle visitors’ emergencies when the region’s hospitals are already stretched to capacity.

Still, said CAPCOG Director of Homeland Security Martin Ritchey, “No matter how much planning a local government, county government, the region and the state do, it’s really going to come down to the individual’s preparedness.”

Here’s How You Can Help:

1) Decide where you’ll be on Monday, April 8. The link at the QR code (t.ly/5X78l) shows the path of totality. Everywhere within the path will experience the total solar eclipse; totality will last longer closer to the blue centerline. In Austin, the partial eclipse begins at 12:17pm and totality lasts about two minutes starting at 1:36pm. The city recommends Austinites watch close to their homes, workplaces, or schools to cut down on traffic.

2) If you plan to travel, bring extra food, water, diapers, toilet paper, and cash (ATMs may run out, and card transactions might not work if cell networks go down), along with a paper map (communication networks may be overwhelmed).

3) Obtain your safety glasses now. Be sure they meet the ISO 12312-2 safety standard. In 2017, unsafe counterfeit glasses – some with the ISO symbol – proliferated on Amazon, so the American Astronomical Society this year compiled a list of trusted manufacturers, available at t.ly/O06M5. Parks and Recreation Department facilities will distribute 10,000 pairs of glasses beginning March 11, and library branches will have a limited supply available shortly before April 8.

4) Share information about the eclipse with people in your community, especially those who don’t speak English.

5) Find out what your child’s school plans to do on April 8. AISD is holding classes and will provide eclipse glasses for students and staff. If you’re staying in town for the eclipse, buy groceries and gas before April 5. Follow readycentraltexas.org/eclipse for safety and event updates.

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