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Small Texas towns gear up for solar eclipse crowds

Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news. Cities and small towns in Texas from the Mexico border to Texarkana are bracing for a flood of visitors ahead of next week’s solar eclipse, with some local leaders warning their residents to prepare by stocking up on food and water and staying home on Monday. They’re also watching the weather forecast carefully. Along the eclipse’s path through Texas, meteorologists are predicting cloudy and rainy conditions in south Central Texas and cloudy skies in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, which could ruin eclipse viewing parties and other planned events. In Llano, Mayor Marion Bishop said regardless of what the weather does, his city of 3,300 residents is expecting large crowds of eclipse tourists, heavy traffic and potential shortages of food, water and medications. He’s advising Llano residents to “hunker down, stay still and hold on, because it’s gonna be a wild ride.” Solar eclipses occur when the moon passes directly between the sun and Earth. In Texas, the eclipse’s path is expected to begin near Eagle Pass at around noon and end at Texarkana around 3 p.m., passing through small towns like Uvalde and Kerrville as well as big cities like Austin and Dallas along the way. Llano is in the path of totality, meaning that for about four minutes the moon will block the sun entirely. According to NASA, a solar eclipse like this year’s won’t happen again for another 20 years. That’s caused an expected crush of eclipse tourism next week, with visitors from other parts of Texas and around the country booking hotels, vacation rentals and RV parks months in advance. Multiple Central Texas counties have declared local disasters in order to control people moving in and out of the areas and more easily tap into state resources, KXAN reported. Kaufman County in North Texas did the same. Meanwhile, Texas airports are preparing for more than the usual number of travelers. Dallas Love Field plans to have extra staffing. Austin’s airport was bracing for a surge of rental car rentals and returns before and after the eclipse. There’s a reason for the frenzy. Viewing a total eclipse is a spectacular, visceral experience, said Stephen Bradshaw, a professor of physics and astronomy at Rice University. As the moon moves in front of the sun, the temperature drops, and a diamond of light beams emerges around the moon’s edge. Being able to witness a total eclipse over land is also unusual, Bradshaw said. This one is passing through densely populated areas that are relatively easy to reach, sparking thousands of road trips. In Bradshaw’s view, it’s worth making the effort to see. “It’s almost sort of a whole body experience,” Bradshaw said. “I think these days, especially, people are a lot more about having experiences. And this is one of nature’s most spectacular.” Prepping in Llano In Llano, Bishop’s main concern next week is gridlock at the Roy B. Inks Bridge over the Llano River. Built in the 1930s, it’s the only bridge connecting the northern and southern halves of the city. “We’re making the best we can out of not a good situation,” Bishop said. “[The bridge] is not going to be able to handle the demands of the traffic that’s going to be going across it.” The mayor has asked residents to stock up with a week’s worth of food and fill up their gas tanks before this weekend. Bishop said the city’s 90 bed and breakfasts are totally booked. The city has spent $35,000 to rent 150 portable toilets. The city is warning visitors that cellphone service may be spotty with so many people in town. “You can’t take a town of 3,300 people, and then bring in 60,000 [more] and not expect to run out of everything,” Bishop said. “When you’ve got a horde of hungry people, and they’re here for a day or two, then all the supplies are going to disappear.” Tony Guidroz, the city’s community development director, said Llano has held three town halls in preparation for the eclipse. He added that the city is viewing the eclipse as an opportunity, not an emergency, and hopes that local businesses, hotels and restaurants will experience an economic boost. “We’re really excited for the opportunities that our businesses and lodging properties may have to really capitalize on the economic impact that the event can provide,” he said. At Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que, Manger Chris Engelman said that the restaurant has stocked up with about 50% more than its regular supply of meat, paper goods and to-go containers. Cooper’s will extend its hours and asked employees to report for work about four hours earlier than usual, he said. “We are going to knock it out of the park. We’ve put in as much research and preparation as we can. It’s about taking care of the customers, while giving relief to employees,” Engelman said. In Junction, worries about I-10 congestion Roughly 80 miles west of Llano in Junction, Andrew Burnard, a volunteer leader with Kimble County’s Community Emergency Response Team, said the county has emergency plans in place in case of traffic jams on Interstate 10, a major trucking route connecting Houston and Los Angeles. “We are very worried that people are going to pull off of [the highway] and look at the eclipse and then cause more traffic delays for the truck driver that just wants to get his load all the way to LA,” Burnard said. The eclipse is supposed to reach Junction at 1:30 p.m. and will last about three minutes. The weather forecast for Junction on Monday is mostly cloudy with possible thunderstorms. Adam Hammons, a spokesperson with the Texas Department of Transportation, said in an email that the agency will have crews available to direct traffic where it’s needed and will put messages on electronic highway signs warning people not to park along the highway. South of the city at South Llano River State Park, Superintendent Cody Edwards said the park’s 220 day-use parking spots and all 58 campsites are already booked for the eclipse. Park staff have pumped out the park’s septic system and prepped the restrooms for the influx of eclipse visitors. Edwards said staff is working hard to give visitors “the best possible outdoor experience” to view the eclipse from its two-mile river frontage or more than 20 miles of trails. In Eagle Pass, a chance to change the subject For months, Eagle Pass has been the center of Texas’ efforts to militarize the border as the state entered a still unresolved standoff with the federal government over the enforcement of immigration law — exemplified by the state’s seizure of a city park on the Rio Grande as a staging area for state troopers and Texas National Guard members. On Monday, some city officials hope to paint the border city in a different light as they welcome thousands of expected visitors who want to see the solar eclipse in one of the first American cities to experience the path of totality. “What’s being shown on the news is not what is actually happening in our community, we’re very safe, we’re very welcoming, there’s nothing out of control,” City Manager Homero Balderas said. “We want people to experience it for themselves.” To showcase the city’s offerings, officials have planned for more than a year to put on a music festival coinciding with the eclipse, Balderas said. They booked artists and began promoting the event — investing close to $2 million — that was initially planned for Shelby Park. When state officials seized the park and closed it to the public against city officials’ wishes, that forced a last-minute relocation to the Kickapoo Lucky Eagle Casino. Balderas said he was concerned that the relocation — approved by the city in late February — and the publicity about the border enforcement standoff might hurt attendance at the festival , but that he remains hopeful that visitors will get to see the city for what it is — welcoming and safe — while witnessing a unique natural event. “We’re excited and we’re definitely ready, whether it’s 5,000 or 20,000 [visitors] — we’ve been working very hard,” he said. In Sulphur Springs: a parking space and a plate for a fee In Northeast Texas, St. James Catholic Church in Sulphur Springs — the oldest and only Catholic church in Hopkins County — is renting out the church’s 350 parking spots for $25 each and plans to sell food and special glasses to view the eclipse. Karen Lozano, head of the pastoral committee at the church, said there is a nervous energy around town ahead of the eclipse, which is supposed to reach Sulphur Springs at 1:42 p.m. and last four minutes on Monday. “The number one worry is that we may not have cell service or internet service here. We are a little town and now everybody wants to come to Sulphur Springs because we’re in the direct center of the [eclipse] path,” she said. Lozano said the church has already sold more than 50 parking spots. Restaurants that normally close on Sundays are being asked to stay open all week. Schools are also renting out parking spaces and using that money to fund their science programs. Hotels and RV parks in town and surrounding areas are booked. In Powderly, about 40 miles north of Sulphur Springs near Paris, Jason Besteman is opening his family-owned ranch to visitors for the first time. Besteman said his family has been building short-term rentals on a portion of their dairy farm, believing that agricultural tourism is what will help them survive. “The farming business is tough at times,” he said. “I really see [agricultural tourism] as a big thing as people are trying to get out of the city and experience the fresh air of rural outdoors.” For the eclipse, the family has set up more than 100 RV spaces and campsites for $250 a night. He hopes the farm will see an economic boost from the eclipse. “We have a really pretty view on a hilltop,” he said. “I don’t know what the weather is going to do, but we are hoping a lot of people come into town.” Disclosure: Rice University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here. 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