Feb. 12—WATERTOWN — With less than two months until the big day, the total solar eclipse could attract as many as 174,000 people to Watertown on the day in April that the city becomes one of the best views for the event.
Local officials have been told by the state Office of Emergency Management to expect between 43,500 and 174,000 visitors to converge on Watertown over a span of three days for the eclipse on Monday, April 8.
City Manager Eric F. Wagenaar said Monday that local officials were a bit surprised to learn that so many people could be coming to view the astronomical phenomenon.
"We're in really good shape, but we still have plenty to do," Wagenaar said.
But it's far more visitors than had been anticipated when the city started preparing for the event months ago, so businesses, event organizers and law enforcement agencies are planning accordingly for a mass of people.
"It's going to be insane," said Dr. Debra Koloms, a local eye surgeon who will be viewing her third total solar eclipse in her life.
The path of the total eclipse — considered North America's most anticipated celestial event for years to come — runs right through the north country.
For months, organizers in Watertown have been planning events for the eclipse.
The city will hold its Total Eclipse of the Park in Thompson Park on the day of the eclipse. The Watertown Downtown Business Association will be holding a celebration on the Saturday before around Public Square.
On Monday afternoon, about 30 organizers met in the council chambers at City Hall to discuss the status of their plans and review changes because of the mass of people expected for the event.
Watertown Police Chief Charles P. Donoghue expects city streets will be "gridlocked" with traffic before and after the eclipse. The total eclipse itself — when the moon aligns between the Earth and the sun, blocking the solar light from reaching Earth — will be viewable at about 3:22 p.m. in Watertown and last about 3 minutes and 40 seconds.
When she attended the last eclipse in North America in southern Illinois in 2017, Koloms found herself stuck when leaving the area. It took her and her party about 12 hours to get back to Chicago, a trip that normally takes about five hours, she said.
She has no idea how long it will take visitors to get out of Watertown, on Interstate 81 and other routes out of the north country once it's over.
City Planner Geoffrey T. Urda told the group that plans for people to board buses at the Target Plaza on outer Arsenal Street were scrapped, citing that buses would get stuck in traffic possibly for hours.
Instead, the city has arranged to use 12 buses from Hale Transportation in Watertown for continuous loops inside Thompson Park to shuttle people for the best viewing spots in the city.
"We'll get inside the park and we'll get you out," he said, adding that it'll be the responsibility of riders to get to the shuttle buses from locales around Watertown.
Visitors will not be allowed to drive into the park. One route will be left open for emergency vehicles into the park. Every inch of parking inside the park will be for volunteers and vendors working on the eclipse event that day.
People looking for that perfect spot inside Thompson Park to view the total eclipse should expect to arrive by about 9 a.m., organizers said.
Several mobile traffic message boards will be placed in and around the city to get the word out about traffic flow. Local radio stations will be asked to notify motorists about traffic snarls.
Organizers will be giving out thousands and thousands of special glasses that must be worn to protect viewers' eyes.
Koloms, an ophthalmologist and medical director of the Center for Sight on State Street, said eye injuries can be caused by viewing the eclipse without the glasses.
The Center for Sight will be giving out 5,000 glasses, she said.
Organizers are putting together plans for vendors and musicians at the park for that day, safety, marketing and social media to advertise Watertown's efforts and community outreach to businesses.
But they can't do anything if the weather doesn't cooperate. If it's raining or snowing, people may change their plans of coming to the north country and go some place that the event isn't dampened by the weather.
"If it's raining, no one is going to come," Koloms said.
Sackets Harbor, Henderson, Cape Vincent, Clayton and Tupper Lake are also organizing eclipse viewing events in their communities. Fort Drum is planning its own event.