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Eclipse towns have 2 big concerns: Traffic and port-a-potties

As people across North America prepare to look up at the sky on April 8 - when the moon will stand between the sun and the Earth in a rare total solar eclipse - officials in Bandera County, Tex., are thinking about one very down-to-Earth thing: traffic.

County officials have been planning for the eclipse and the thousands of visitors it will draw to their Texas county for upward of three years. Bandera County falls entirely in the path of totality - a narrow, 115-mile arc cutting across 15 states, stretching from northern Mexico to Maine.

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How would an area with a population of 24,000 accommodate an influx of tourists, their business and their cars?

“In October we did a trial run of what we’re going to do in April, and at all of the major intersections we put deputies to direct traffic when needed,” said Jack Moseley, a county commissioner.

Cities across the path of totality have been coordinating tourism campaigns, launching promotional events and setting up countdown clocks over the past year ahead of what the Great American Eclipse website predicts could be one of the largest-ever mass travels events in the country. But planning for a boom in visitors in a place like Dallas or San Antonio (also in or near the path of totality) and a place like Bandera is very different.

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No port-a-potties, no cell service

Without the infrastructure and resources of a large metropolis, officials in small counties and towns say preparing for the larger-than-life astronomical phenomenon requires attention to very human, somewhat banal details.

“All the port-a-potties in the county are booked,” said Johanna Johnston, the event coordinator for Maine Eclipse and the executive director of Southern Aroostook Development Corporation.

Johnston and her colleagues in Aroostook County, Maine, began preparations for the eclipse nearly three years ago. The path of totality includes a large swath of the county, including Houlton, the county seat, where many out-of-towners are expected to congregate. Johnston’s conservative estimate is that Houlton will see about 10,000 visitors - more than double the town’s population of 4,000. It’s a flood of bodies Johnston said the area hasn’t seen since a 1997 Phish concert. Hotels and rental homes like Airbnb have been booked up for months, schools are closing for the day, and locals have been warned to complete any necessary errands the week before.

County resources will be stretched thin in the days leading up to and after the eclipse, meaning emergency services, police and firefighters have to be strategically allocated. Emergency management teams have procured extra cellphone towers for the county in the event that an overload of users downs connections and people need to contact 911.

“Our county services are very limited. The state patrol, the sheriff’s department, they’re all going to be having to spread their resources throughout the entire county - they can’t just concentrate on Houlton,” she said. “So as far as safety and security, we’re just dependent on the Houlton Police Department, which is very small.”

In Bandera County, crews are making do with even fewer resources.

“Cellphones probably will not be working because of the amount of people,” Moseley said. “As a matter of fact, in a large part of the county cellphones don’t work anyway.”

Police stationed at major intersections will be equipped with radios to reach the main office in the case of an emergency, and people will be directed to those intersections for service. The county also doesn’t have its own fire department; Bandera relies on nine volunteer departments, four of which will be equipped with more ambulances on the eclipse day.

With only one major grocery store in the county, officials have been encouraging residents to get whatever they might need for several days, pick up any prescriptions and fill up their tanks well ahead of time.

“We ask and will continue to ask the citizens to take care of any gasoline purchases, any food purchases - not to stock up, but just be cognizant of it - by the Wednesday prior to the eclipse, because it may be the following Wednesday before we can be fully serviced,” said Patricia Moore, executive director of the Bandera County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

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Gassing up early

To avoid clogged roadways on the day of, Bandera’s RV parks and rentals are pushing folks to make a weekend out of the eclipse experience and book campgrounds for three to four days. But Moore said she has some concerns about the true “eclipse chasers,” who may travel around that morning in search of the clearest skies. (Even after years of preparation, the weather is one thing officials won’t have any control over.)

“We as Texans know our weather; it was very cloudy this morning and right now it’s gorgeously sunny, and that’s a common occurrence for us,” she said. “The other people that are coming in, if they wake up and it’s cloudy that morning, they’re going to try and go somewhere else. Our roadways are very rural and that migration could be a challenge, not just for us, but for everyone in the region.”

In Fredericksburg, Tex., a city north of Bandera, crowd estimates for the eclipse range from 50,000 to 150,000. Sean Doerre, the public information officer for the city, said that when planning for the eclipse began three years ago, officials decided to focus on crowd management and logistics rather than marketing and tourism - trusting that the crowds would come.

Fredericksburg sits in the heart of Texan wine country, so officials are largely relying on the promotions and special events of local wineries to draw visitors as they concentrate their efforts on the tedious details of crowd management.

Like many other small towns ahead of this eclipse, Fredericksburg formed an eclipse task force that met with local officials from other small cities and counties that navigated the 2017 eclipse about best practices. “It was really about focusing on those most basic needs - so trash, extra restrooms, designated public viewing areas - so you don’t have people running all over town looking for the best place to watch,” Doerre said.

Erie, Pa., has taken a bit of a different approach. It’s the fifth-largest city in the commonwealth and may become the third-largest, population-wise, on April 8 with the eclipse visitors. Christine Temple, the director of communications for VisitErie, said it’s been an all-hands-on-deck approach - involving layers of coordination with state and city police, the Pennsylvania Transportation Department and local school boards - but that officials have tried to get the residents excited about the day, too, while also preparing them for inevitable inconveniences.

She and her colleagues launched a local initiative called SHINE - an acronym for “schedule your appointments, have a plan, inform yourself and others, navigate traffic, and enjoy.” While she said there are always going to be naysayers who won’t take the warnings seriously or get into the spirit of the day, by and large residents and especially local businesses have been looking forward to their town’s chance in the spotlight, so to speak.

“It’s been such a community, a cohesive process, that it’s been kind of cool to watch,” said Temple, who was born and raised in Erie. “We sometimes get a bad rap; people think that there’s nothing to do here unless you come up for the beaches. … I would really love for a lot of these people that are first-timers to our area, that they’re pleasantly surprised by what they find and that they come back.”

For Johnston in Maine, this will be the first eclipse she’s experienced, and she said she’s enjoyed going into local schools and community groups with “cheesy Power Points” to get her community excited about this rare day. But with the nitty-gritty planning - mapping traffic patterns, organizing stakeholder meetings and ordering port-a-potties - it’s been easy to lose sight, literally, of some of that excitement herself.

Asked what she’s most looking forward to about April 8, Johnston joked: “The end of it.”

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