Meet the Woman Trying to Prepare Your Town for the Total Eclipse
Wired Sarah Scoles 7.21.17
During a solar eclipse, the Moon slides in front of the Sun, blocking it perfectly, and a swath of the world goes dark. And on August 21, that darkness will pass from west to east, from Oregon to South Carolina.
For the millions watching, it will be an awe-inspiring event, as the moon blocks an entire star from view, casting an umbra across the continent. But for the towns hosting those millions, it’s also a logistical nightmare. Places in the path of "totality"—where a full eclipse occurs—will have more visitors than perhaps ever before. The website Great American Eclipse estimates that 12.25 million people live within the path, and between 1.85 and 7.4 million will travel to it. Those numbers make it hard to plan for just how taxed their roads, gas reserves, watering holes, bathrooms, and food services will be.
So to make their eclipse memorable and safe, towns have turned to expert outsiders. And there's one in particular who can help: psychologist, author, and eclipse consultant Kate Russo. Based in Belfast, Ireland, she's the world expert in eclipse-specific community planning, and she's committed to helping the largely small towns across America prepare for the experience.
One doesn't become the preeminent community eclipse guru overnight. Russo began with years of obsessive eclipse-chasing, traveling far from Northern Ireland to see totalities in action. She had been watching for more than a decade when a solar eclipse finally visited her native continent of Australia. This time, she went back home to work with local officials, launch her first book on eclipse-chasing, and do psychological research. She interviewed first-time eclipse viewers, surveying them before and after the event to see how the actual experience compared with their anticipation.
But as she spoke to people around town, she realized that for many locals, that "before" period was dominated by worry—mostly about tourist traffic. Some people even planned to duck out and avoid the whole hassle. “They really couldn't see that it was for them,” she says.
After the eclipse, Russo interviewed the local coordinators, to find out what had gone well and what they would do differently. That work, and preparatory outreach visits to their archipelago starting in 2013, caught the notice of the Faroe Islands near Denmark, which was getting ready for its own solar eclipse in 2015. The organization Visit Faroe Islands appointed Russo as their official consultant, where she educated local leaders on what happens during eclipses, helped create public-oriented brochures, advised on ill weather, and established safety standards for viewing filters. Afterward, she wrote a white paper on community eclipse planning and revealed it at a 2015 eclipse-planning meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Portland.
Since then, it's become the go-to guide for umbra-encumbered regions around the world, distributed by, among others, the American Astronomical Society. It's a digestible 14-page guidebook for locals who hope to coordinate eclipse efforts in their communities.
Earlier this year, Russo began consulting remotely, videoconferencing with interested communities along the August eclipse's path. For each place, she helped people consider how to deal with all those other humans, educate residents and tourists, disseminate day-of information, and delegate to local leaders. "Imagine you are tasked with having to prepare your community for the event of a lifetime—except you have no personal experience of this event, no idea what to expect or even how many will be coming," the pitch on her site goes. "This is the reality for every community that finds themselves along the path of totality."
United States of Complicated Infrastructure
Many of the precepts laid out in Russo's white paper are reflected in the US's internal prep team. The country has been readying itself for this eclipse for a while, an effort led by the American Astronomical Society’s “Eclipse Task Force." The Force aims to educate people on what eclipses are and how to stare at them safely. Members of the team want people to see the eclipse, rather than staying home to stay out of traffic, and so help coordinate government (national, state, local) agencies. Those agencies, in turn, can themselves coordinate official viewing areas, traffic reroutes, and extensive Porta-Pottie networks.
Astronomer Angela Speck is on that task force, and is a driving force in her own community of Columbia, Missouri, one of few big-ish cities in the eclipse’s path this year. She’s been talking to libraries, emergency management organizations, the chamber of commerce, the state’s science-teacher organization—everybody. And that’s because this eclipse is different from most eclipses: Instead of humans having to go to the eclipse, the eclipse is coming to them.
“Eclipses are usually in places that are hard to get to,” Speck says, “just because most of the planet is places that are hard to get to.” When the solar system makes an eclipse easy to get to, the planet’s inhabitants have a lot more to worry about. Imagine your town’s biggest event, Speck suggests. In Columbia, that event would be graduation, or a big ballgame. “You can't go out to eat; you can't book a hotel room,” she says. “This is going to be much, much worse.”
So much worse, in fact, that she then compares it to prepping for a zombie apocalypse. “We're not going to have anybody eating brains, but zombies don't need to eat and sleep,” she says. Eclipse hounds do.
Communities need to know that, and get ready. Many—like Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where lots of people will go because it’s is beautiful like a different planet and even better when you cover it up with darkness—have their own websites. There, visitors and residents can find special events, designated viewing areas, safety tips for how not to go blind, pleas to please get gas ahead of time and know that your cell phone probably won’t work, and requests to avoid flash photography during the dark time.
Towns and businesses also have physical coordination to do. They have to stock up on food, and request that businesses not price gouge. They have to disseminate weather forecasts so viewers can decide whether to bail for a sunnier spot. They have to reroute traffic and shut down the streetlights near viewing areas. They have to control crowds. “Peace officers must understand the emotion that will be released during the event," says the website Eclipse2017.org, "and maintain professionalism at all times to ensure an enjoyable experience for all participants."
The whole Department of Transportation has even gotten involved: “Why:” its website explains, “a planned special event for which there has been no recent precedent in the United States.”
Still, not every town in the United States has equal and adequate support or knowledge. Russo knew that the thousand-ish communities along the eclipse path would need help—her help. After all, many of them didn't even have the benefit of a big ballgame's worth of experience with big crowds. "The plan was to follow up on these communities that got in contact [remotely], to give much more guided and tailored input, and to be a resource on the ground to as many communities as possible," she says.
For that, she needed to be mobile, so she started planning that most American of activities: a camper-van road trip, along the path of the totality. She planned to stop and consult with interested locales on the trail, and settle in Oregon at the end, where she herself would watch the eclipse. To that end, in January 2017, she put out an "Expressions of Interest" call, which netted 90 days of work and 180 associated events that hinged on Russo's in-person guidance, to start in April.
But she ran into trouble, thanks to that other most American of enterprises: bureaucracy. “I can't get a labor certificate,” she says, “because there's no such job as eclipse consultant.” Official immigration was the only option that would allow her to perform work and apply for grants in the US, so in summer 2016, she applied for a visa under the category of “alien of exceptional ability.” And though US officials granted her petition in November, she still hasn't received her visa—even after six requests to expedite the rest of the process.
As a result of the processing time, Russo has had to forgo nearly all of her boots-on-the-ground consultations. Although she was able to visit Nebraska for 10 days, most of the towns that were counting on her have missed her.
It wasn't until June 30 that Russo received a letter from the National Visa Center (NVC). "The applicant is now in the queue awaiting an interview appointment overseas, where a consular officer will adjudicate the applicant’s visa application," it read. "Most appointments are set within three months of NVC’s receipt of all requested documentation." After the interview, in London, officials require 10 more business days to return passports and finish processing. That puts her visa approval sometime around October—when, note, there are no eclipses in North America.