The gymnasium at Park School in Weiser is full of third, fourth and fifth-grade students. Standing next to the stage, Principal Angela Halvorson introduces Assistant Professor Brian Jackson from Boise State University.
“And he is going to talk to us all about this cool thing that’s coming, the total solar eclipse. Can you please give him a round of applause . . . "
Jackson is traveling around Idaho this summer to talk to kids and adults about the eclipse.
“The moon’s shadow is going to pass right through your city. The moon is going to completely block out the sun, as seen here in Weiser, and it’s going to be as dark as night for two minutes,” says Jackson.
Jackson’s been working with people in Weiser for almost a year to prepare.
“Weiser is one of the best places in the United States to see the eclipse. So you guys are probably going to have a lot of people here on that day,” Jackson says.
That’s a bit of an understatement, says Patrick Nauman, the owner of Weiser Classic Candy, a vintage store in the center of town.
"Hordes, we’re expecting hordes of people. We’re now making plans to be able to accommodate somewhere between 50 and 60,000 for that morning,” says Nauman.
Nauman is co-chairman of the Weiser Eclipse Festival. That 60,000 number, more than ten times the town’s population, makes him a little giddy.
“It’s a lot of people. As a tri-county area, Washington County, Payette County and Malheur County, the latest estimates are 300,000 people in that three-county area to view the eclipse,” Nauman says.
Nauman says Weiser, near the border of Oregon, lies very close to the middle of the path of totality. That’s the moment in which the moon will completely cover up the sun. Add in the fact that the area traditionally has pretty clear weather in August. That makes Weiser a coveted eclipse viewing spot. Nauman’s heard people are coming from all over the world.
“It seems like every day, either our Chamber of Commerce or our school district gets another call from another group of 50 to 100 to 200 people that are planning on being here,” says Nauman.
A student exchange group is bringing 200 students from Japan. A middle school in Ada County will bring 10 bus loads of students.
The hotels from LaGrande to Boise are full. Motels in Weiser started eclipse bookings six years ago. Most of the campsites are gone. The eclipse committee is working with the school district to open up all four schools, including nine acres at the high school, for viewing. Memorial Park has been set aside to hold up to 10,000 people.
“We have a lot of logistics to work out obviously because we’ve got to have additional emergency services on staff and we’ve got to have water stations on staff and first aid stations and those kinds of things manned around town," says Nauman.
But Weiser has some experience to draw on. Each summer, 15-20,000 people flood the town for a week during the National Oldtime Fiddlers Festival.
“And so we’ve got a good track record of knowing how to handle an influx of people and knowing how to put a festival on and doing those kind of things,” Nauman says.
But the eclipse will far outshine the Fiddle Fest in sheer numbers of visitors. So the town is gearing up.
Nauman is renting port-a-potties while working with the fire department, local sheriff and state police in Idaho and Oregon. The influx of people will likely jam Weiser’s cell phone towers. So local ham radio operators will be stationed around town, to report emergencies or problems.
Weiser is also working with the Idaho and Oregon Transportation Departments. Nauman’s worried that thousands of people will wake up that Monday morning in August and decide to drive in all at once on Highway 95.
“It’s a two-lane highway once you leave the Interstate coming into Weiser so we’re really trying to encourage people to plan and think ahead,” Nauman says.
Weiser’s planning a four-day festival around the eclipse, and he hopes people can come early and spend some time, and money. He says this winter was hard for the area. Between too much snow and too much spring flooding, businesses suffered.
“And there’s been some economic downturn, just a little bit, some economic crunch I guess you could say because of Mother Nature throughout the course of the winter and the spring,” Nauman says.
Around the block from Nauman’s candy store is startling evidence of that downturn. A large building has been smashed in half. A never-ending winter snowfall built up on many Weiser roofs, and some, like this one, were literally crushed under the weight. A few blocks away, local resident Barbara Barber points to where the back wall of the town’s only grocery store still stands. The rest of the building was demolished by the accumulation of too much snow.
“With all the collapses and things, and the heavy snow and it lasted for such a long period of time, people didn’t come here that would usually would come and that’s a big impact in a place like this,” says Barber.
She has watched Weiser struggle this year. She says the eclipse comes at just the right time.
“It will be a shot in the arm, a real boost, right when we need it,” says Barber.
Like many locals, Barber is bringing in a group of people to watch the eclipse. She’s planning a backyard brunch for at least a dozen friends. She’s worried about traffic too, and crowds, but . . .
“I’m certain that we’ll be prepared, we’re all like hosts and hostesses. And we’ll open up our arms and say ‘Welcome,’” says Barber.
Back at Park School, the lecture is over but kids are still asking questions. Principal Angela Halvorson says her kids, and the rest of the town, are getting ready.
“I’m feeling very excited about just the experience this will bring to our students and our community. It’s really neat to have something like that happen, it doesn’t happen all the time, for sure,” says Halvorson. “I think people are really starting to realize that this is the real deal, this is going to be huge.”
Weiser is just one of the state’s prime viewing spots. Unofficial estimates say half a million people could travel to Idaho for the eclipse in August. That’s a lot of activity for just over two minutes of eclipse time, but according to residents in Weiser, it’s just what they need.
Find Samantha Wright on Twitter @samwrightradio
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