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Public safety officials brace for thousands of tourists for solar eclipse

A map from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources shows the path of totality of the 2024 total solar eclipse through Indiana
Indiana Department of Natural Resources
photo was provided
A map from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources shows the path of totality of the 2024 total solar eclipse through Indiana

Proper eye wear for viewing the eclipse was not the only thing public safety officials said they are worried about for the April 8 total solar eclipse. They said the tourist traffic has kept them busy planning for more than a year.

Wells County Emergency Management Agency Director Rick Velasquez said he’s been told horror stories about communities that were in the path of totality in 2017, the last time Indiana saw a total solar eclipse.

“It was just something that was unbelievable,” Velasquez said. “The traffic conditions for one would have been the main consideration. People getting lost, not knowing where they were at, public health, safety is another thing, discarding their materials improperly, and that includes paraphernalia.”

Ball State Students use binoculars to view the 2017 solar eclipse
Tony Sandleben
89.1 WBOI
Ball State Students use binoculars to view the 2017 solar eclipse

Northeast Indiana is in the path of totality for this year’s total solar eclipse. Local EMA’s said they started planning for April 8 in early 2023. Adams County EMA Director Barb Lehrman said it’s “impossible” to guess how many hours of planning have gone into it.

“We have gathered information from other EMA directors from Kentucky, Tennessee and Oregon that went through the 2017 eclipse,” Lehrman said. “So, we took their information and started our plan based on their after action reports.”

Lehrman and Velasquez both said their tourist estimates were in the thousands, including anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 people in Wells County. If the higher end of that range visits on April 8, it was more than double the population of Wells County in just a day.

That could heavily strain food and fuel supplies as well as internet and cell service. Lehrman said a high school in Adams County printed off 5,500 fliers that the County EMA and Health Department took to community businesses.

“They know to plan ahead for their food,” Lehrman said. “The gas stations are planning ahead to have extra fuel on hand if they can get it.”

Adams County EMA Deputy Director Magen Wilson said the strain on cell and internet service could hinder 911 calls.

“With all the people coming in, they’re going to be live streaming and video taping,” Wilson said. “So, that’s going to take that cell tower coverage down a little bit. So, that’s where your cell phone and stuff is going to be straining to be able to reach out.”

Huntington and Allen Counties are only partially in the path of totality, but even the parts not in totality will see a more than 90% eclipse of the sun. As a result, Huntington County EMA Director Bob Jeffers said services there will be strained as well.

“So, it’s recommended that you have cash on hand in case, like the gas stations, they rely on the internet to process your payment,” Jeffers said. “If the internet goes down or cell phones go down, you may need to have cash to pay for your transactions.”

Northeast Indiana Homeland Security Director Bernie Beier said Allen County will likely deal with the same issue. In a statement, he said, “We were planning for a 25% increase (about 100K) over the weekend.”

Beier said anyone out on the roads on April 8 should “plan for an extended trip. Fill your gas tank early. Take along a fully charged cell phone with (a) charging cable. Bring along healthy snacks and water to drink. Plan for delayed travel times. Prepare for the weather. Spring weather in Indiana can change rapidly. Remain alert for changing weather conditions, take appropriate action when needed.”

The interstates and state roads in the region will likely see the most traffic. Indiana State Police Public Information Officer Sergeant Brian Walker said ISP is telling everyone to plan, plan, plan.

“The trip may be normal, a normal traffic flow going in, but as soon as the solar eclipse has ended, what we’ve found in the past is that everybody wants to leave right away,” Walker said.

Walker said everyone leaving at the same time would make the time after the eclipse the most dangerous.

He said the state police believe arrivals will be staggered, but if everyone leaves at the conclusion of the eclipse, roadways will be even more jammed, which could lead to car wrecks or road rage incidents. Walker said it would be safer to stay a while after the eclipse.

“Come early,” Walker said. “Plan ahead. Know where you are going to be going when you get into the viewing area, and then stick around, hang around for a while after the event. Don’t just up and leave.”

Counties in the region's northern areas are not in the path of totality and said they do not expect the kind of traffic Allen, Huntington, Wells and Adams Counties are. As a result, some are sending resources south to help. The Noble County EMA is sending its mass-casualty trailer, which Lehrman said will help multiple counties.

“It’s going to be located in Monroe, Indiana so that it’s handy for Huntington, Wells, Jay and Adams Counties to use if we need it,” Lehrman said.

Lehrman said the mass-casualty trailer would be good to have in the event of something like a large car accident.

Some school districts in the path of totality have announced they’re closing, dismissing early or holding an e-learning day on April 8 to keep students off the busy roadways.

Experts said they expect the eclipse to hit totality in the 3:00 hour the afternoon of April 8.

Tony Sandleben joined the WBOI News team in September of 2022.