REXBURG — While the Aug. 21, 2017, Total Solar Eclipse is more than eight months away, preparations are well underway to accommodate the thousands of people expected to descend on Rexburg and the surrounding region.
Officials estimate anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 people may visit Rexburg during the eclipse. Throughout the Upper Valley region, tourist officials have said up to 500,000 people could possibly visit.
Various city and county officials have all said that there's no way of knowing how many to expect for the event, which the Great American Eclipse webpage says is the first of its kind in 26 years.
“An eclipse is a cosmic billiard shot — the Sun, Moon, and Earth line up to reveal the Sun's atmosphere, it's corona. Eclipses on Earth occur only because of an amazing celestial coincidence,” says the webpage.
The Great American Eclipse says that next similar cosmic event won't be seen again until April 8, 2024. The eclipse in 2017 will be “truly a great American eclipse,” as visibility on the continent will start in Oregon, cross the country and end in South Carolina.
Rexburg proves a magnet for the eclipse as it is one of the better places to view the moon shadowing the sun, said Eric Conrad, liaison between the City of Rexburg and Brigham Young University-Idaho.
“When you're east of the Rocky Mountains, you end up with a lot of humidity. Back east and in the south, it blurs the clearness of the sky. I've lived in Alabama; I totally get that,” he said.
Conrad said that Oregon experiences a lot of cloudy weather in August.
“Rexburg is the only major city west of the Rockies considered by all the scientists as the best viewing point in the world,” he said. “This is why MIT and UCLA are coming here. If MIT is coming here, and, they're in Boston, there must be a reason Rexburg is the best place.”
According to Eclipse2017.org, Rexburg's total eclipse will start around 11:33:14 a.m. and will continue for two minutes and 17 seconds.
It's something that not everyone has the chance to experience, said BYU-Idaho physics professor Stephen McNeil.
“The moon will completely block out the sun. Every now and then a partial eclipse will block out the sun. A total solar eclipse blocks the sun out completely. It's pretty rare,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Transportation states that the eclipse will set a precedent in the United States, as it's a “feat of nature and not man-made.” It's also “an act of nature that is not a disaster.”
However, such an event was disastrous for some early civilizations, McNeil said.
“In ancient times, they would sacrifice someone in hopes the sun would come back. We're not going to be doing that on this campus. We'll be fine,” he said.
Earlier this year the city and BYU-Idaho officials started making plans for the eclipse, saying that it was vital to get ready for what's expected to be a mammoth event.
National and international interest in Rexburg as a location to view the eclipse started as early as November 2015, when city workers started getting requests to rent the Porter Park Shelter. At the time workers declined to make reservations, as it was too far in advance of the event.
City Senior Administrative Representative Marianna Gonzalez said that an astronomy group recently reserved the Porter Park shelter. They paid $40 for four hours for the Aug. 21 date.
“We've had 10 different groups from all over the country and internationally call,” she said.
The city receives a request concerning the eclipse about once every other week. Many of the calls are from people complaining that all the hotels are booked.
Tom Walsh, Chairman of the Yellowstone Teton Territory (YTT), a nonprofit tourist group, says that regional lodging has been booked for several months. Walsh also runs the Swan Valley Hansen Guest Ranch and says that many inquiries have come, from everywhere from Germany to Australia.
“We're sold out, as is most of the state. We've been booked for several months. We were sold out for the eclipse this last summer. We get emails inquiring about it, and some are looking for a house for eight, nine, 10 people,” he said.
In Rexburg, Airbnb owner Mary Beth Lemon says that for several months her facility has been booked for the day of the eclipse.
“I was contacted last summer by a great couple from France,” she said.
Walsh also serves as the chairman for the Yellowstone Teton Territory (YTT) organization that serves as a not-for-profit tourism organization.
“Projections are for 250,000 to 500,000 'day-trippers' from within a four-hour drive of this region. This number is in addition to those who are residents in the region,” he said.
Rexburg Mayor Jerry Merrill says that there's no way of knowing how many travelers will arrive in the community. Rexburg has never experienced an event such as this but is doing everything it can to prepare for it, he said.
“We are trying to get a little bit of a handle on the numbers of people we can expect. That's a very difficult number to get a handle on,” he said. “We know there's going to be a few thousand. We hear all kinds of crazy numbers, but we won't know if that will materialize.”
Merrill noted that officials from Stanford University and NASA plan to visit.
“We've even got a group from the Swedish Astronomy Society coming,” he said. “Rexburg is a fairly desirable place. It has the lowest chance of a cloudy day in August than any place in the country,” he said.
On top of that, the city also has BYU-Idaho.
“We're trying to bill Rexburg as the educational place to learn about the eclipse. A lot of BYU-I professors will be teaching classes where people can learn about the science of what's going on,” he said.
In the meantime, the city is working with various agencies to review everything from emergency response to traffic control.
“We're taking a regional approach. It's not just our city,” Merrill said.
He did note that the city has the advantage of handling an influx of 20,000 people three times a year as BYU-Idaho students move in.
“We know how to deal with big crowds to some extent. We'll try to leverage that experience and take advantage of what we know,” he said.
The city's police department can't confirm any plans, but Merrill said they might need to call in extra law enforcement, like the state police.
“The traffic — that will be the heaviest the day of the eclipse,” he said.
The Madison County Sheriff's office says that it's working with county commissioners in putting some plans together.
“We know man-hours will be at significant amount. We've got to be prepared. We will have an influx,” said Madison County Sheriff's Captain Bruce Bowler.
Madison County Commissioner John Weber says that the commissioners are actively working with the city, BYU-Idaho and the Rexburg Chamber of Commerce to prepare the community for the eclipse.
He reported that the commissioners have been contacted by various agencies, including NASA.
“They're showing a great big interest in the Twin Bridges for a staging place for their equipment and manpower there,” he said.
Weber also reported that the county changed the date of their annual county fair to Aug. 8, as it conflicted with the Aug. 21 eclipse day. The commissioners are also considering turning the fairgrounds into overflow camping for eclipse visitors.
“We anticipate that parks will be full of campers that will come to town. We're thinking about opening the fairgrounds for RVs and motor-coaches and such things,” he said.
Like the other officials, Weber says there's no way of knowing how many eclipse watchers the community can expect.
“All we know is that it's going to be a big event for Southeast Idaho,” he said.
The massive amount expected has motivated the commissioners to order extra porta potties to be set up throughout the county.
“It will be a lot. We have reserved several. We don't know where they'll be stationed,” he said.
Weber doesn't expect to hire more sheriff's deputies to oversee crowds but says the county's biggest issue is in keeping the peace.
“Our biggest concern is certainly making it a safe and an enjoyable experience for all that participate and that come into our community. It's to make sure they have a good experience.”
Madison Memorial official Doug McBride says that the hospital is currently developing a plan to help provide medical treatment for what could be a massive crowd.
“We're talking about creating some First Aid stations around the area,” he said. “We're just trying to plan for a worst-case scenario and to try and deal with it.”
Weber says he's noted some excitement in the community as residents look for ways to make money off the eclipse.
“There's a lot of buzz around town on how they can help or how they're going to, quite frankly, make an extra buck,” he said.
At the Rexburg Chamber of Commerce, CEO Ted Austin urged restaurants, stores and gasoline stations to stock up for extra customers.
“The event occurs on a Monday and might be an economic boon the preceding weekend, and the following week, for that matter. People are going to be here to buy food, buy gas and who knows what. If they're coming here, there's a good chance they'll go to the national parks while they're here,” he said.
Austin says the chamber is pushing to make business owners aware of the event's effect.
“We're trying to impress upon them the potential number of people coming into our area based on this outside interest,” he said.
Austin said that employers will have to work through and around the eclipse.
“If you run a business, are you going to be closed that morning so your employees can view it too? Are you going to be bringing in additional staff that day to handle the anticipated influx of people in the region? Those are a lot of unknowns nine months away,” he said.
The only thing officials know is that all the hotels are booked, Austin said.
“Everything else is speculation. We're relying on a lot of so-called experts outside the state who've said, 'You'd better be prepared. This is what happened in another country.'”
In the meantime, city officials want to work with business owners in managing what could be an overwhelming event.
“We've suggested to the local business and nonprofits that if they want to try and capitalize on the people who will be there, that we're happy to support them,” Merrill said. “We are certainly here if businesses want to try and set up booths. We are certainly happy to be here in a supporting role.”
In the meantime, officials plan to meet on a monthly basis starting in January to finalize plans.
“It's exciting, but it's kind of frustrating, as there are so many unknowns. It's still kind of exciting that it's going to happen here. It's kind of cool. We hope we can be ready,” Merrill said.