Houlton is calling on the town’s churches, nonprofits and residents to help feed and house the predicted masses eclipse watchers.
First Baptist Church Pastor Mark Lunn said the church would consider helping with the 2024 total solar eclipse that will pass through Houlton on April 8. The event could attract 40,000 visitors to the town. Credit: Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — A small Aroostook County town has planned an eclipse poster, a snappy commercial, kick-off parties and other events but has yet to nail down survival basics like food, lodging, transportation and portable toilets for the throngs expected to head its way next spring.

Houlton, the last town in the United States to experience the 2024 total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024, is calling on the town’s churches, nonprofits and residents to help feed and house the predicted masses of 20,000 to 80,000.

With just 10 months until a crowd of thousands, possibly equal to the size of Bangor and Brewer combined or more, descend on Houlton, planners are just getting started on details such as food, housing, transportation, safety and traffic control when towns experiencing past eclipses began planning months earlier in their process.

Lodging in the area is already being booked. The town does not have the time, resources or money to take care of everything like feeding, entertaining, transporting and sheltering such large numbers of people, eclipse committee co-chair Jane Torres said in a recent public forum.

“This town is going to explode,” said Torres, who also heads the Greater Houlton Chamber of Commerce. “Restaurants have to prepare for the masses. We’re not going to be able to provide all these meals. That’s where the churches and the nonprofits come in.”

The eclipse committee has completed a marketing plan that includes commissioning eclipse poster art, a short commercial, solar viewing glasses and a commemorative coin, but they have just turned their focus to the logistics of people’s basic needs, said Johanna Johnston, the co-chair of the town’s eclipse committee.

On Thursday, Mark Lunn, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Houlton, said that it was the first he was hearing about the call for help, but that the church would certainly consider doing something. He said the church regularly feeds seniors and could offer food or parking in the church lot that can hold about 40 vehicles.

Not everyone is concerned about feeding the masses.

“Anything is possible,” County Yankee grocery store manager David Cunha said, adding that the Houlton store can order and react to the crowd size. “There were 70,000 with the Phish concert, and we were OK.”

For Houlton and other rural Maine towns on the eclipse’s path of totality, the promise of potentially millions in eclipse money is, on its face, good news. In South Carolina alone, the 2017 total solar eclipse economic boon was $269 million, according to the state’s Department of Tourism.

But suddenly dropping a predicted 20,000 to 80,000 visitors into a town of a little more than 6,000 could become a logistical nightmare without planning and coordination, according to towns that have already experienced such an influx.

Comprehensive planning equaled tremendous success for Hopkinsville, Kentucky, a city of 33,000, which dubbed itself “Eclipesville” for the 2017 eclipse, according to Brooke Jung, executive director of tourism.

“It resulted in an estimated $28.5 million in economic impact from the 116,000 visitors that traveled to Christian County to witness totality,” Jung said Friday.

The city had been planning for the event for years and had an 80-plus page manual outlining logistics for more than 20 events happening at the same time, she said.

Since then, eclipse visitors have returned to the city and some moved to Hopkinsville because they fell in love with the community during their eclipse visit, she said.

Of all the lessons learned from the 2017 eclipse, traffic was at the top of the list. No matter how much state transportation officials planned, there were massive gridlocks similar to the 1989 Limestone Phish concert in Maine.

Illinois traffic was backed up 200 miles from the center of the eclipse and a normally five-hour drive took more than 12 hours, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation. In Wyoming, there were 526,000 more vehicles on roads than normal, said officials.

“Traffic is one thing that you couldn’t totally prepare for,” Jung said. “We had primary, secondary and tertiary routes established and even had assistance from the National Guard in preparation. It did take additional time for visitors to arrive at their destinations.”

Some small towns along the 2017 path of totality, like Wykecliff, Kentucky, decided not to advertise because they did not have the infrastructure to accommodate so many.  

In Oregon, although prepared, the governor declared a state of emergency to secure disaster dollars. South Carolina officials advised residents to stock up on groceries and fill gas tanks before the event. Washington County, Idaho, commissioners passed an emergency declaration and the American Red Cross said they planned for the 2017 eclipse like any large-scale event.  

Houlton Police Chief Tim DeLuca said they are looking at traffic choke points, gridlock areas and emergency vehicle routes, and are recruiting volunteers to help. The town is also meeting with the Maine Department of Transportation to discuss potential Interstate 95 traffic.

Large event failures are often tied to poor planning for basics like water, food, traffic, gas, lodging and portable toilets.

Take for example, the Rome, New York, summer music festival Woodstock ‘99, a tribute to the original 1969 Woodstock. Portable toilets were overflowing, it was a steamingly hot August day, there was no free water and food was overpriced, according to news accounts and an HBO documentary on the event.

Portable toilets also were at the heart of Wyoming’s 2017 eclipse issues because the units were sold out when planners tried to get them, Wyoming Highway Patrol Officer Shannon Raycliff said in a web conference related to planning for 2024.

“I think Colorado got them before us,” he said.

Event planners generally rent one portable toilet for 50 people, which would be 800 for 40,000 people. Considerations include how long visitors will be in the area and the availability of other public restrooms. But Hopkinsville, Kentucky, had 150 portable restrooms for 116,000 eclipse visitors, which was adequate, according to Jung.

Houlton planners have already put the town’s name on portable toilet rentals to get ahead of others, according to Houlton Director of Community Development Nancy Ketch, who did not say how many are reserved.

Spring in northern Maine is generally blustery, snowstorms are not out of the question and most of The County’s rural roads are bordered with tall drifts and mud-soaked farm fields. The temperature on past April 8 dates has ranged from a high of 86 to a low of minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit, with about six inches of snow,  

Camping or eclipse viewing off rural roadways is not likely and out-of-state visitors may not be prepared for the dramatic changes in northern Maine weather.

Ketch said they may use school bus shuttles to eclipse viewing areas in town parks and are asking residents to consider housing people in spare rooms, cabins or second homes.

Most Aroostook County residents know about long distances between gas stations, but with so many drivers predicted, Johnston said they have already talked to Daigle Oil in Houlton, which is ready to keep tanks full.  

Ketch said planners are looking at developing specific plans related to logistics, food, water and safety.

“We’re just not there yet,” she said.

Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli is a reporter covering the Houlton area. Over the years, she has covered crime, investigations, health, politics and local government, writing for the Washington Post, the LA...