By P.J. Tracy
Imagine darkness in the middle of the day, the town overstuffed with people, gridlock on the roads, a grocery/dollar store with nothing remaining to buy, and county and local services being unable to get to people in an emergency situation.
“I’m not trying to scare you,” said Kim Williams, the state’s 2024 eclipse event project manager. “But, there will be a lot, lot, lot of people.”
Williams spoke at the Feed Bin Cafe in Murfreesboro last Thursday as part of a monthly lunch speaking series across Pike County that will bring topics of interest to a public forum.
She said the eclipse, which will occur on Monday, April 8, 2024 around 1 p.m., will be the first total solar eclipse in Arkansas since 1918.
“Millions will travel to view the event, which has been described by some as fabulous and life changing,” Williams told the group.
As a point of reference, the recent 2017 solar eclipse across America will provide a relevant case study.
“Casper, Wyoming used 18 months to prepare — we have two-and-a-half years from now, and we need to use every minute,” Williams stated “They didn’t know what to expect, and we can benefit from their experience. Hundreds of thousands to millions of people traveled for the event. It was never considered previously to think of an eclipse as a tourism event.”
She said the 2017 eclipse in the United States produced the largest single migration of people at one time in human history, and utilized the Benjamin Franklin quote of “by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
Since the eclipse event’s path of totality will be twice as wide and longer in duration (two minutes, 45 seconds in 2017, 4 four minutes, 20 seconds at peak locations in Arkansas in 2024) with the sun covered by the moon at least 94% in the whole state with 53 of the state’s 75 counties in the path of totality, it is reasonable to expect a record number of tourists coming from not only across the nation, but also from around the world.
Specific information and a map on the eclipse’s path can be found at www.arkansas.com/eclipse. The event will start in Mexico and travel through Texas before reaching Arkansas and then travel across America and a small part Canada in a northeasterly fashion. Murfreesboro, which in the path of totality, but just off the prime viewing location, will have a total eclipse of three minutes and 42 seconds. The event will begin in Mexico around 11:00 and move toward Arkansas, beginning in Texarkana around 12:33. The change from partial eclipse to full eclipse and then again partial will take around 2 hours and 45 minutes.
“We are looking to have a lot of visitors, and being a once in a lifetime event for many (the next total eclipse in North America will be in 2045), so could be a visit to the Crater of Diamonds mine. The New York Times listed the Crater as one of the 10 best places to be during the eclipse, and the one upside you have is that Murfreesboro knows how to deal with tourists,” said Wiliams.
There is a full eclipse somewhere in the world approximately every 18 months, she said, but many of those don’t occur over land as the world is almost 75% covered with water. Annular eclipses, a partial eclipse, occur more often, with the next one set for October 14, 2023, six months before the total eclipse.
Still, in 2024, she says state infrastructure could grind to a halt as the interstate highway system becomes a parking lot and food and water shortages are at hand.
“We can do absolutely nothing and still get over a million of visitors to the state, and we want them to have a good experience. However, it will be a huge strain on infrastructure. The population of Wyoming tripled as one of the best places to view the 2017 eclipse.”
She said the event will especially come as a surprise to local residents who are oblivious to the fact an eclipse is even occurring and won’t know about it until it begins to get dark.
As part of the plan to prepare, the Arkansas Department of Transportation is discussing signage on the interstates of connecting non-eclipse states, warning them as to possible lengthy delays as well as placing portapotties along the interstates.
“I-40 is regularly bumper to bumper traffic on non-holidays, what will happen if traffic gets to a standstill for 3-4-5 or 6 hours — it’s something that has to be thought about,” said Williams.
Also included in the planning is the Arkansas Department of Education, who is considering moving spring break to coincide with the eclipse, or making the day a holiday at the very least, to avoid issues with picking up children from school and the possible issues with school bus travel.
“A safety plan is needed, and we must use the time wisely,” Williams stated.
From a tourism standpoint, Williams said communities should identify a dedicated place for parking and watching of the eclipse, otherwise visitors will simply pull over on the side of the road, making the mobility situation even worse. She also said airports, especially the smaller community ones, will be full as “VIP” eclipse chasers will try to chase the event at several locations to see the eclipse multiple times.
“This will be the biggest event Arkansas has ever seen as a state,” she said, noting that no event has ever impacted as much of the state as the eclipse will at the same time, unlike a Razorback game, which would only impact the greater northwest section of the state or other events limited to a small section of Arkansas.
She also added that the issues weren’t limited to 1 p.m. on April 8, 2024 … that people would begin to arrive early, expected in droves from locales as far away as Oregon and Washington state by predictive traffic paths.
“You need to provide visitors something to do, in fact, provide them reasons to stay past the eclipse. They will start arriving four to five days before and it would be ideal to keep them in place one to two days after.”
Williams said it would be a great opportunity for a entrepreneurs or a non-profit group/church to offer shuttles around the town and to the Crater.
However, she said the types of tourists arriving would largely be the ideal.
“They will be educated with expendable income and respectful of the communities they are visiting. Seventy percent of the visitors to Wyoming in 2017 had never been there before — a 167.1 million dollar boon to the Casper area and $269 million to the state with 1.6 million visitors. Arkansas spends millions of dollars every year to try and attract these types of tourists. They are the kind of tourists we want. They won’t leave a lot of trash — as long as a place is provided for them to put it — and will be model tourists and not leave much of a trace.”
Following the Wyoming even in 2017, local law enforcement was queried about citations, and they noted that none were issued to tourists — only to locals.
She added that a specific kind of tourist would also be attracted to the area — those that seek the mystic and magical powers of diamonds and crystals.
“If there is a large diamond found six weeks to a month before the eclipse, you guys better look out,” Williams said with a laugh.
Weather forecasts have studied April 8’s since 1979, in what Williams termed “an advanced Farmer’s Almanac” and stated that it should be clear with a historic 20-30 percent chance of cloud cover from Texas to Arkansas.
However, that same study said that as you move to the northeast, those percentages climb to as much as 80% in the New England states.
“The visitors will leave if there is cloud coverage and go to another location … they expect that and are ready for it,” Williams said.
Therefore, Williams suggests campground and rental establishments begin taking reservations now and have a least a three day minimum stay as opposed to daily accommodations.
“You cannot let them cancel less than a month out — and it expected for higher rates during that time … just be reasonable and don’t overcharge so much it makes the news. This is our chance to make money on the state, county and community levels.”
An an example of being unreasonable she said some Wyoming motels charged $1,200 per night.
She added that smaller locales, such as Murfreesboro without large numbers of hotel rooms available, that an opportunity existed for homeowners to go on vacation and rent their homes to tourists.
“We simply won’t know how many tourists to expect until it happens, they don’t fill out RSVP’s prior to departing … but the message will be to arrive early, stay late and stay put to help with infrastructure stresses.”
Williams said the state will seek to place a large order for safe-quality viewing glasses would then be distributed around the state at a reasonable price. “We have to get a partner, because a bidding process is awarded to the lowest bidder.”
They will also look to market the event in bordering states that won’t get the eclipse such as Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Florida as well as some attempt at international visitors.
There are also discussions ongoing with electric companies to disable streetlights during the darkness for maximum viewing capabilities, but Williams said being largely a rural state there would be plenty of dark sky possibilities.
Williams said plans from the state level and down will be developed in the ensuing time by emergency management, who will treat this event “like a disaster” as opposed to simply a tourism event.
For locals, she said it would also be wise to plan ahead and get some water and groceries in reserve before the eclipse, and to perhaps fill up all your vehicles with gasoline the week previous.
“Golf carts and side-by-sides may be your best friends if you have to get somewhere quickly,” she added, due to the possible traffic congestion. “There just is no way to predict all that will happen — we can just use what we learned in 2017 and just know that people are looking to be in Arkansas.”