How Portage County is already preparing for the 2024 solar eclipse

A total solar eclipse passed over Kentucky in 2018. Photo by Jongsun Lee

There’s nothing like planning ahead, especially if you’re a county agency charged with securing safety during a total eclipse of the sun.

It’s a bit more difficult when what might happen is largely unknown, since the last total eclipse northeastern Ohio experienced was on June 16, 1806.

With only data from partial eclipses to go by, McKenzie Villatoro of Portage County’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management office, has her work cut out. As the office’s emergency management specialist, she’s all over the upcoming event.

Portage County will be on the edge of the path of totality, with the event lasting from noon to 4 p.m. April 8, 2024. Peak eclipse will occur at 3:15 p.m.

Villatoro says 11 states will be in the path of totality. That means some 31.5 million people will potentially get a glimpse, just under 168,000 of them being Portage County residents.

If partial eclipse events elsewhere are anything to go by. Villatoro expects that number to increase to about 325,000 people during the event. Some of them will just be passing through on their way to greater-Cleveland area watch parties (the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame already has one scheduled) but some will find a place somewhere in Portage County, she said.

Villatoro anticipates increased use of highway rest areas: Portage County has four, two of which are currently closed.

“The last thing we want is for a participant to get out on the freeway to look at the eclipse, and get hit by a car passing,” she said.

Massive traffic jams will likely be extreme immediately after the eclipse, she predicted, relying on data from counties that have dealt with partial eclipses.

Her solution? Encourage viewers to arrive early, stay late, and stay put. And coordinate with ODOT and local law enforcement to develop a traffic safety plan. 

More traffic, more motor vehicle accidents, garbage control from all the additional people, and coordinating with construction crews are all on Villatoro’s radar, as is coordinating with every school district in the county, many of which will be dismissing their students just at the peak time, she said.

That translates to buses likely getting stopped in monster traffic jams, so Villatoro plans to ask area school superintendents to arrange for early dismissal that day, or perhaps to cancel school altogether.

Three universities — Kent State, Hiram and  NEOMED — with about 43,000 students combined, will also be in session during the eclipse, presenting yet another crowd control issue, she said.

Not to mention visitors, some from nearby counties that are not in the path of totality and others from who knows where.

“There are people called solar eclipse chasers that travel all over the world,” Villatoro said.

Hundreds of thousands of people, even if some of them are only passing through Portage County, are likely to generate significant trash, so Villatoro’s got another item on her checklist: coordinate with the county waste management district to make sure trash and garbage can be cleaned up in a timely manner.

Food trucks will likely be out in force during the event, so Villatoro’s plan will include them as well.

Then there’s technology. Villatoro expects a high volume of network and internet issues as people flood the system with pictures, phone calls and online viewing opportunities. Her plan is to reach out to safety force dispatchers and HAM radio groups to ensure communications.

Her to-do list includes coordinating with the Portage County Park District to get the word out about pre-identified viewing locations, putting information on the county’s Portage Prepares webpage, and sending mailers to residents.

She also intends to reach out to local fire departments and EMS districts to ensure people’s health and safety are secured. She’ll coordinate with county tourism bureaus and hotel/visitor associations to address lodging issues, as at least some of the viewers will need a place to stay before and perhaps after the eclipse.

Noting that April is typically a cloudy, rainy month in northeastern Ohio, Villatoro intends to track National Weather Service and Ohio EMA reports to monitor local weather conditions.

Anyone with any interest at all in seeing the eclipse had better make plans: Northeast Ohio won’t see another total solar eclipse until Sept. 14, 2099. Buying special solar eclipse glasses now might be a good idea as retailers — even Amazon — are likely to experience shortages as the date approaches.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.