Millions pour into US towns in path of total eclipse

An entrepreneurial sign for parking is displayed on Sunday (Aug 20) near the small town of Depoe Bay, Oregon, as it prepares for the coming solar eclipse.
An entrepreneurial sign for parking is displayed on Sunday (Aug 20) near the small town of Depoe Bay, Oregon, as it prepares for the coming solar eclipse.PHOTO: REUTERS

CHARLESTON, South Carolina (AFP) - On Monday (Aug 21), when a total solar eclipse sweeps across the United States for the first time in 99 years, people gathering in Charleston, South Carolina, will be the last on the continent to experience it.

They are ready.

Historic Charleston, with its cobblestone streets and elegant antebellum mansions, was clearly a-bustle on Sunday (Aug 20) in full pre-eclipse mode.

Its restaurants were packed and downtown parking was at a premium as excited locals and tourists - possessors of the prized solar glasses that make eclipse-viewing safe - strolled cheerfully along the seafront Battery promenade.

Weather predictions for Monday were iffy - with clouds and scattered thunderstorms predicted through the hours when the eclipse is due, from the moment when the moon first obscures a small arc of the sun, to totality, and through the end of the whole cosmic viewing experience.

For locals and for those who have come from far away, it is a big deal.

"We're very excited," said Brandy Mullins, a 38-year-old stay-at-home mother who moved to Charleston six weeks ago with her family.

She and her three children all have solar glasses and are planning to watch the eclipse from an open area - weather permitting.

"It's not looking very good," she said of the weather forecasts, "but it's OK - we still get to experience it and see the darkness." Nick Willder, 59, and his wife, Sarah Boylan, aged 60, of Nottingham, England, had planned their two-week vacation through the Southern US to end in Charleston in time for the eclipse.

It will be their third try to see a total eclipse - earlier attempts in England and China, Willder said, were both rained out.

The "Great American Eclipse", as it is being called, will move diagonally across the country, north-west to south-east, providing a spectacular solar show - again, weather permitting - and an excellent excuse for scores of eclipse-viewing parties and music festivals.

It will first be visible in the north-western state of Oregon at 9.05am (12.05 am Tuesday Singapore time), with totality there coming 75 minutes later. The Oregon authorities say they expect a million people to flood into the state for the event, clogging roadways and overflowing campgrounds, the Oregonian newspaper reported.

In all, about 12 million people living in 14 states will be in the path of totality, with many million others able to witness at least a partial eclipse, according to the American Astronomical Society.

In Charleston, some local government offices are closing to allow workers to avoid driving during the eclipse, and police and emergency services are putting extra personnel on duty to deal with crowds, the Post and Courier newspaper reported.

As many as two million visitors were expected in the state for the eclipse.

The small town of McClellanville, directly under the path of the eclipse, is even renting extra porta-potties.

And what if - after all the hubbub and extensive preparations - bad weather should bring disappointment to would-be eclipse viewers?

Willder, the British architect, seemed philosophical.

"If we don't get to see an eclipse, it doesn't really matter," he said.

"It's just like putting a pin in a map" - a great excuse to travel.