Idaho Falls bracing as eclipse-mania sweeps the small town

By David Montero / Los Angeles Times

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — The soft orange light of the Sunday early morning sun filtered through the old church’s stained glass windows while the Rev. Ruth Marsh stepped down from the altar and asked her congregants if they had any special prayer requests.

“For sanity. For safety,” a voice called out. “It’s kind of scary to think that many people are coming.”

Marsh smiled and nodded. Another worshipper added, “And prayers for their safe return home.”

Soft chuckles rippled through the pews at Trinity United Methodist Church. Somebody near the front asked for prayers that the infrastructure of Idaho Falls would survive. And, dear God, no fires please.

With the nation riveted by the pending arrival of an extremely rare coast-to-coast solar eclipse, prime viewing spots such as Idaho Falls are bracing for traffic congestion, strains on infrastructure, an economic boost and some inflation — and hoping for clear skies.

The sun, moon and Earth won’t come into alignment until Monday, but the eclipse has already shaded nearly ever aspect of life in this town of about 50,000 that straddles a tree-lined section of the Snake River and counts fishing and kayaking as its biggest tourist attractions.

The largest event each year is the Fourth of July celebration that draws about 100,000. If estimates are to be believed, the population in the area could grow up to 10 times that amount for the eclipse.

“They’re telling us to have four days of water stored, prepare for power outages and even gas has already gone up 20 cents a gallon in the last week,” Cindy Isaacson said.

Not that she was completely convinced: “It could be just Y2K all over again.”

She was in the Idaho Falls Visitor Center over the weekend picking up several solar eclipse glasses for her family. At $2.12 each, the center had blown through half of its supply of 50,000 a week before the event.

The eclipse sunglass economy has been flourishing.

Domino’s Pizza, Arctic Circle, Wal-Mart, the Riverside Deli and several other locations were all hawking them on marquees throughout town. The Museum of Idaho had been giving them away for so long that Zoe Sehlke had her spiel down pat as she handed them to visitors — sounding like a flight attendant going over how to use the inflatable vests on a plane.

“Don’t touch the lenses. Don’t scratch the lenses,” she said. “If the lenses are scratched, they’re useless. On ours there are two sides, the blank side and there’s a print side. The print side is worn out.”

The museum is a bit of a hub for the eclipse experience. NASA trucks are rolling into town this week as Idaho Falls has been designated as an official NASA observation site, and the space agency will be broadcasting live from the museum when the eclipse begins.

So will television’s local KIFI chief meteorologist Michael Coats. He said he’s been getting anxious as people seem poised to blame him if the skies aren’t pristine and clear for the historic event.

He said he’s never felt so much pressure to deliver a good forecast in his 11 years in Idaho Falls, though he gamely tries to remind people that he, in fact, doesn’t control the weather. The last few days have been cloudy.

“I get stopped at the supermarket, the coffee shop — even getting my tires changed — and they’re asking me about what the weather will be,” Coats said. “The cloud cover is a little disconcerting right now, but it’s not entirely unusual this time of year with afternoon thunderstorms that build up in the late morning.”

The so-called path of totality, a 70-mile-wide band where 100 percent of the sun will be blocked by the moon for about 2 minutes, is considered the optimal place to watch. In Idaho Falls, the initial phase of the eclipse is expected to start at 10:15 a.m. with totality happening at 11:33 a.m.

Idaho Falls is deemed a prime viewing location, given the wide-open spaces immediately outside town.

Hotel rooms have largely been sold out for months — even years — and some that normally go for $100 a night are booked for up to ten times that much, with a three-night minimum stay.

The eclipse has also spurred controversy as KIFI reported a woman who reserved a room at Le Ritz Hotel and Suites for $140 three years ago saw the owner call her two weeks ago to tell her the nightly rate was increasing by $60.

Kerry Hammon, spokeswoman for Idaho Falls, said the city also had to change its short-term rental ordinances so Airbnb could operate.

Campsites are also being advertised for as much as $300 a night. Delroy Braswell, who works at the museum, said he’s offering space in his yard for $50 a night.

Val Lofthouse, an local resident who was planning to head up to a campground his family owns about an hour north of town, said if people could get up there, they could pitch their tents for free.

On the outskirts of town, Deby Infanger and her husband, John Infanger, turned the cornfield of the 40-acre farm they recently bought into a giant eclipse maze, using the official logo the city trademarked, which is ubiquitous on T-shirts, hats, coffee mugs, posters and banners in the city.

She said she is planning for 1,000 people. Standing in the mud generated by a disconcerting rainstorm Sunday, she worried her three porta-potties could be stolen and wanted to make sure they were locked down or moved inside the fencing. Commodes are a high-value commodity here. There is not a porta-potty to be rented from anywhere in Idaho now.

Along with putting the final touches on a new building where snacks and eclipse glasses will be sold, Infanger said she and her husband were hustling to get the maze cleared in time. The plan is to put lawn chairs in the middle of the maze and let people watch the eclipse drama unfold.

“We are building it and hope they come,” she said. “Well, maybe not too many come.”

City officials, worried that the area’s two-lane rural roads won’t be able to handle all the traffic, said they fear the scene could resemble Woodstock, where hundreds of thousands of hippies descended on an upstate New York dairy farm for the defining concert of the 1960s.

The city is hoping people gather at four parks around town. But Police Chief Mark McBride, who is slated to retire next week after the eclipse, said he expects some people to simply stop and watch wherever they happen to be. That has Fire Chief Dave Hanneman concerned that his fire trucks won’t be able to get out of Fire Station No. 1, located downtown and just off a major thoroughfare.

“We can normally get to somebody within four minutes,” Hanneman said. “If someone is having a cardiac arrest and it takes us 10 minutes, that’s too long.”

But Bonneville County and the city are also paring down some services for the day and allowing nonessential staff to skip work.

The eclipse is even slowing the wheels of justice in Bonneville County, with a slimmed-down docket Monday of just one jury trial as six of 10 judges have cleared their calendars for the day.

With people already beginning to arrive, Chip Schwarze, the chief executive of the Greater Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce, said he believes the city has done all it can to prepare and now is just waiting for a moment that will take place because an object about 239,000 miles from earth will cast the entirety of its shadow here.

“It’s going to happen no matter what,” he said.

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