In the Magazine Tech & Science

Authorities Are Treating August's Solar Eclipse, a First in 99 Years, Like It's the End of the World

 08_11_SolarEclipse_01
A reflected image of the sun is seen on a white board as kids look up to view the beginning a partial solar eclipse outside the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in San Diego, California on October 23, 2014. The total solar eclipse on August 21 will be the first visible across the United States since 1918. Mike Blake/Reuters

Port-a-potty shortages. Cellular blackout zones. Ambulances stuck in gridlock. These are the conditions emergency managers across the nation are expecting the week of August 21.

No, a major hurricane isn’t forecast. This isn’t preparation for a cyberattack after someone tipped the FBI. Beyoncé isn’t doing a national tour—but the cause is a star of another kind.

The upcoming solar eclipse—the first in 99 years to sweep across the continental United States—has so many fans that disaster-level preparations are being put in place because of the large number of travelers predicted to jockey for prime viewing spots. As many as 7.4 million people are expected to pack into a 70-mile-wide band across the U.S. to watch the moon’s umbra block out the sun for a two-minute window on August 21, according to solar eclipse education website GreatAmericanEclipse.com. The path of totality, the area where the sun is completely blocked out, stretches from Oregon to South Carolina.

Here’s why many folks are planning for a disaster: Oregon has a population of 4 million people, and the eclipse is expected to draw 1 million visitors to the state for a few days. In Missouri, preparations resemble that for a blizzard or “everything from St. Patrick’s Day parade to a World Series celebration,” says Chris Hernandez, city spokesman for Kansas City, Missouri, one of the larger metro areas in the path of the eclipse.

All of those visitors are expected to clog interstates, along with state and local roads, for days before and after the eclipse, much like the rush during emergency evacuations, says Brad Kieserman, vice president of disaster operations and logistics for the American Red Cross. “Some of these places are never going to see traffic like this,” he says. In some areas, “the population will be double or triple.”

Once visitors arrive, they’ll need bottles of water, lodging and restrooms. And, of course, solar glasses.

In Columbia, South Carolina, the city’s main museum has bought 5,000 bottles of water for thirsty eclipse viewers, and the city government plans to send out trucks to frequently refill planned water stations. In Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park staff have rented an extra 200 portable toilets to accommodate “their busiest day in history, meaning past or future,” says Kathryn Brackenridge, eclipse coordinator for the town of Jackson, Wyoming.

She was hired earlier this year to organize details regarding emergency preparedness and marketing related to the solar eclipse.

Merritt McNeely, director of marketing for the South Carolina State Museum, called a local portable toilet company six months ago to reserve its services. She’s worried about a national port-a-potty shortage.

National Construction Rentals, which rents portable toilets across the U.S., hasn’t seen a spike in demand, but “there most likely will be last-minute requests as the date approaches,” says the company’s sales and marketing director, Scott Barley. “We advise customers not to spend too much time in our portable toilets on the actual date of August 21, or they may miss this very brief but memorable event.”

And don’t expect lodging to be available, experts say. Hotel rooms along the eclipse route were mostly sold out as of June, and Airbnb rentals in the path of totality are reaching $1,000 a night in some cities.

That’s an issue for the Red Cross, which regularly gives victims of home fires and other destructive events hotel vouchers, so they can sleep comfortably while repairs take place, Kieserman says. “You’re not going to have hotel space in most of these places. So where are these people going to stay?”

The Red Cross is preparing hundreds of emergency shelters in the 12 states that will be touched by the eclipse in case of other emergencies that could occur while millions of travelers are away from home, he adds. Everything from earthquakes to heat waves to hurricanes could cause thousands to need immediate shelter.

Hospitals are preparing for more cases of heat stroke, twisted ankles and car crashes, but two factors have Coleen Niemann, spokeswoman for Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center, particularly worried: With so much traffic, normal deliveries of medicine and supplies likely won’t arrive on time, so her hospital is stocking up on emergency supplies.

Another concern: Cellular service towers aren’t meant to handle the capacity of an additional half-million to a million people per state. Cellphone, GPS and smartphone internet services will likely be nonexistent near the eclipse zone, she says.

Cellphone companies often have priority channels for government agencies and emergency workers, Verizon spokeswoman Karen Schulz tells Newsweek. The company “has prepared our networks for the additional capacity needs we expect during the eclipse and have emergency contingency plans in place to ensure access for first responders and other authorities.”

Niemann’s hospital is turning to beepers and landlines if doctors need to be reached while outside of the building. It has even asked employees to provide the number of a neighbor who has a landline if they don’t have one, and the hospital will begin an old-school phone tree to call in staff in the event it needs more emergency responders.

Kieserman says the Red Cross will use ham radio to communicate when cellphone networks inevitably go down, but its staff and volunteers working on emergency response will have some access to top-priority emergency cell channels.

Given all the hoopla involved in preparing for the event, how should eclipse gypsies get ready? Experts say pack enough food and water in your car in case you’re stuck in gridlock traffic for hours, print out directions since GPS (especially Google Maps) likely won’t be an option and know where you’re staying at night. Don’t wing it and expect to find a hotel room the day before the eclipse, or you may end up in an emergency shelter or sleeping in your car.

“Please come prepared,” says Denise Germann, National Park Service spokeswoman for Grand Teton National Park. Also, “come with your patience.”