Western N.C. Braces for Eclipse Tourism

The King family Matthew, Eve, Mary Beth and Alex sit on a pedestrian bridge across the Oconaluftee River in Cherokee, N.C., Monday, August 21, 2017 as the sun begins to peek out from behind the moon during a total eclipse of the sun. Chuck Liddy - The News & Observer.

Colin Campbell, NCInsider.com

The solar eclipse on Aug. 21 will bring up to 30,000 visitors to the 300-resident town of Hayesville, shutting down schools and potentially creating the worst traffic jam the quiet mountain town has ever seen. Hayesville — in Clay County nearly two hours west of Asheville — is among the Western North Carolina towns in the center of what’s called the “path of totality,” where the moon will cover up the sun for up to three minutes. The path in North Carolina extends from Brevard west to Murphy.

That section of the state is far from a major interstate and full of winding mountain roads, creating logistical challenges along with a potential economic boon for restaurants, hotels and shops catering to the massive influx of visitors. “People are being advised to treat this like a major snowstorm coming in — stock up on food and gas,” Hayesville Mayor Harry Baughn said. While it’s impossible to predict exactly how many visitors will descend on the state’s western corner, Baughn expects “the major issue will be traffic control.” Local police officers, sheriff’s deputies, paramedics and firefighters are planning to work overtime to keep crowds safe and clear any accidents.

The area doesn’t have many hotels, so property owners have been renting out their yards for camping. Restaurants and shops are stocking up and bringing in extra staff, while non-essential businesses and schools plan to close to ease the traffic problems. “Economically, it could be a beneficial weekend to the area, but it’s really going to tax our resources,” Baughn said. Still, Hayesville is throwing a party to celebrate the event. On the Saturday before the eclipse, the downtown area will host SolarFest, and the mayor himself will be serving as DJ with a selection of sun-themed tunes. The town will also open up a large field to host crowds during the eclipse.

Similar preparations are under way in nearby Andrews, a town of 1,800 people in Cherokee County. Interim Town Administrator Bill Bailey says they’ll close downtown streets and bring in vendors for a street festival, with signs directing visitors to parking. Anywhere between 10,000 and 60,000 visitors are expected in Andrews. “I’m guessing that our traffic is going to overwhelm us,” Bailey said. “It’ll be a standstill at some point.”

The N.C. Department of Transportation and State Highway Patrol have plans in place to address traffic jams. “We have troopers coming from surrounding troops to assist with calls for service before, during and after the event,” Highway Patrol spokesman Michael Baker said in an email. “I don’t have an exact number of members being assigned, but they will be placed in the western counties expected to see the full eclipse.  Our primary role will be responding to calls for service such as stranded motorists, collisions and assisting local agencies if needed.  We will address traffic concerns on a case by case basis.”

DOT will stop all road construction work in the state’s 17 westernmost counties, and the agency’s maintenance crews will instead patrol the roads with gas cans, chains and water for any stranded driveways. DOT will also bring in additional trucks from its Incident Management Assistance Patrol program, or IMAP, which usually works on congested urban highways to help quickly clear minor accidents. DOT engineers have also been studying the potential impacts of traffic increases, identifying problem areas when traffic reaches 133 percent and 166 percent of the normal levels. “It’s quite possible the increases in traffic are going to be even bigger than that,” DOT spokesman David Uchiyama said.

At several busy intersections, DOT will have an engineer monitoring traffic and adjusting stoplights to keep cars moving. Detours have been set up in some locations and can go into effect “at a moment’s notice,” Uchiyama said. DOT is also setting up 40 portable message boards to warn people of the expected heavy traffic, and to remind people on the day of the eclipse that they can’t park on the highway, take photos or wear eclipse glasses while driving. Headlights are encouraged during the eclipse itself. Asked if DOT has any tips for avoiding the traffic jams, Uchiyama said “I don’t think there’s any way people can avoid it.”

Some of the mayors say they’d hoped to get more help from the state, but they’ve been told they’ll only get a few extra state troopers. Still, with both NASA and The Weather Channel expected in Andrews, Bailey said the exposure and extra sales for local businesses will make up for the challenges. “At the end, all of the headaches that may occur will be worth it,” he said, adding that he’s reminding locals that “you’re ambassadors for this town, and this has long-term benefits. What we get out of this is a good deal of goodwill.”

Baughn, the Hayesville mayor, says he’s hopeful many of the visitors will want to return and take advantage of hiking, fly fishing and mountain biking in the area. “We’ve got so much outdoor recreation that people are going to say ‘wow, I didn’t know this was here.'”

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Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Follow him at NCInsider.com or @RaleighReporter. Write to him at [email protected]