Predicted sun on Monday has Houlton bracing for surge of eclipse visitors

2 weeks ago

HOULTON, Maine — With less than a week until the total solar eclipse, Pennsylvania and Maine are predicted to have the best viewing conditions. Long range forecasts call for clouds, thunder and rain for Western states like Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. 

Houlton, the last U.S. stop along the 115-mile wide path of totality, is slated for sun and clear skies on Monday, April 8.  

Eclipse crowds rivaling the size of a rock concert were already predicted for the small Aroostook County town. Now, with a sunny forecast, the number of visitors may grow beyond expectations. 

“The weather in and of itself is a defining issue. It could define whether we get 10,000 people or 20,000 people,” said Chris Anderson, chair of the eclipse attraction committee during a public forum on Tuesday night. “Right now the weather’s tracking pretty good. We know that good weather here and bad weather somewhere else will have people coming to visit us on the spur of the moment and that could mean a surge in visitation.”

The town’s third public forum brought members of the community up to date on a growing list of events from Friday through Monday. They include dinners, presentations, concerts, chanting, indigenous drumming and science-related activities. 

Additionally, planners shared the most current information on traffic, parking, shuttle buses and safety.

Police Chief Tim DeLuca said that things are changing every day and probably will continue to evolve until the event because of visitation uncertainties and the weather. 

Nonetheless, planners have been getting ready for this historic event for nearly three years and in that time have amassed enough resources for most any contingency including heated tents, warming centers, food for thousands, porta potties, extra fuel, additional WiFi hotspots and more. 

Shuttle bus routes, traffic patterns and parking have been changing almost daily and as they do DeLuca said they have been posting the updates online. Additionally, DeLuca has been broadcasting information through public service announcements and in the coming days, notices and alerts will be sent to people through the Eclipse App.

With such large crowd predictions, DeLuca reached out for assistance from law enforcement in other parts of Maine because the County Sheriff’s Office, state police and border patrol will also be tied up with regional eclipse responsibilities. 

“We have several agencies who will be here, arriving on Saturday,” DeLuca said. “They will all be sworn in as Houlton police officers for the duration of the event.”

DeLuca said there will be increased foot patrols throughout the community as well as more officers in cruisers patrolling the streets.

As far as the eclipse weekend traffic plan, there will be a law enforcement officer at every major intersection in town. And because it is mud season, parking is pavement only, he said. 

There will be no parking on Pleasant Street and Military Street for emergency access into and out of town and for shuttle buses. Those streets will be patrolled by officers, he said.

“You’re going to see things you typically don’t see like traffic and parking  on your street,” he said. 

DeLuca reminded community members to get groceries early, fill up gas tanks and get things they need before the weekend. 

“That way you can stay home and enjoy this event,” he said. “If we get the numbers of people we are preparing for I expect there are going to be significant traffic delays and maybe even some gridlock. I can almost say for sure after this event is over we will have some gridlock.”

Market Square will likely be shut down on Sunday and Monday, he said. 

The shuttle bus plan has changed from its original design and may change again, said Fred Grant, a local entrepreneur who is part of the eclipse planning committee. 

Reality is there will be more people than we anticipated so as people arrive and things become congested, moving around town may be difficult, he said.

Currently there are five different shuttle buses for people parking in locations away from downtown. 

Grant, who owns local radio station WHOU 100.1 FM said that their goal at the radio station is to provide people arriving into the area with as much information as possible about where traffic is getting held up and which routes are open. 

“We will be communicating that over the radio,” he said. “The hope is that the shuttle service will then be able to get folks to where they want to go.”

Grant said that the scope of the event is like nothing ever before for the town and there are a lot of unknowns.

During previous eclipse events in other locations, people have lost cell service and cell data. To make sure that does not happen in Houlton, Pioneer Broadband has added WiFi hotspots – Maine-eclipse –  in all of the star parks 

“That is a significant investment of time and money that Pioneer Broadband has provided,” Grant said.