Texas county declares state of emergency ahead of solar eclipse

From left, Elizabeth Butler, 11, her brother Bryan, 10, and mother Marie take a peek of the early stage of the annular solar eclipse on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023, at Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas. A Texas county has issued a state of emergency ahead of the April 8 eclipse as it prepares for a surge in tourism. (Shafkat Anowar/The Dallas Morning News/TNS)
From left, Elizabeth Butler, 11, her brother Bryan, 10, and mother Marie take a peek of the early stage of the annular solar eclipse on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023, at Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas. A Texas county has issued a state of emergency ahead of the April 8 eclipse as it prepares for a surge in tourism. (Shafkat Anowar/The Dallas Morning News/TNS)

A small Texas county issued a state of emergency this week as it prepares for a surge in tourism ahead of the total solar eclipse in April.

Bell County officials say they expect severe traffic congestion, fuel shortages and strains on first responders, hospitals, food, grocery stores and the cellular network beginning days before the April 8 eclipse. Officials predict the county's population of 400,000 to double -- or even triple -- as people flock to Texas to glimpse the rare phenomenon.

County Judge David Blackburn said at a press conference Wednesday the emergency declaration will help the county plan, prepare for and respond to the eclipse and coordinate with the state if needed.

"In order to protect the health, safety, and welfare of both residents and visitors, Bell County has determined that extraordinary measures must be taken in the form of a local disaster declaration," the county said in a news release.

As part of the declaration, property owners are required to register with the Bell County Emergency Management Office if they plan to host parties with more than 50 people. Owners must provide the county a site layout and ensure guests have adequate bathrooms, waste disposal and wastewater solutions.

Registration will provide public safety officials and first responders with information when roads and highways are congested, the county said.

The eclipse will carve a path of totality through Texas, plunging many cities into total darkness for several minutes when the moon passes between the sun and Earth. Millions of Americans will travel to witness the event, with many coming to Texas, according to Great American Eclipse.

Many of those visitors will gravitate to big cities such as Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio, but some smaller towns are preparing for tourists, as well.

Tens of thousands are expected to head to Hillsboro -- rebranded to "Eclipseboro" -- to witness the eclipse, and the city has been preparing for them for the past year. Other small Texas cities, including Greenville, Ennis and Canton are also preparing for tourists.

The Texas Department of Transportation spokesman Tony Hartzel said eclipse traffic could be as if several large football games all ended at once.

Bell County, which is in Central Texas and home to cities like Killeen, Temple and Belton, is urging its residents to stay home and avoid driving if possible, refill prescriptions, purchase groceries and fuel cars by April 4. It has closed all county offices.

Cellular service could be spotty, the county warned, encouraging people to use landlines if possible.

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Staff writer Adithi Ramakrishnan contributed to this report.

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