Gov. Sarah Sanders and state troopers at an eclipse-related press conference Brian Chilson

With a hefty police presence and a roughly two-to-one ratio of cameras to humans, officials gathered at the Arkansas Department of Transportation’s auditorium room on Monday morning to hear Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ plans for the April 8 eclipse. It’s 34 days away, and state agencies are preparing for what Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism Secretary Shea Lewis said “has the potential to be the largest tourism event in the state’s history.” 

ARDOT’s headquarters — a hulking old warhorse of a building off Interstate 30 amid industrial warehouses, construction contractor outlets, vape shops and Mexican panaderias in Southwest Little Rock — was an appropriate venue. The state’s roadways are at the center of preparations for the anticipated throngs of glasses-clad visitors. In its eclipse Traffic Management Plan, ARDOT’s data suggests that “up to 1.5 million people are expected to travel from outside the state into Arkansas, along with 500,000 Arkansans who will travel from their residences to the path of totality, for a total of two million people who will visit the viewing area.” 

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“The countdown is literally on,” the governor said, for an event expected to impact Arkansas communities “from Prescott to Paragould and everywhere in between.”

Brian Chilson
Shea Lewis, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism

As for the number of tourists expected, Sanders said, it’s hard to say. ARDOT’s website estimates “millions of tourists from throughout the country and the world,” but Sanders thinks those estimates are high. “I don’t know that we expect the three million number,” she said, “If we have really great weather and Texas has really bad weather, then we may see an influx right up until the day of.” 

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ARDOT Director Lorie Tudor outlined the agency’s plan for ensuring safety on Arkansas roadways. First, she said, the agency is working with the Arkansas Trucking Association to “limit oversized and overweight loads traveling through Arkansas” and with the Arkansas Highway Police to station officers at key locations along busy routes ready to distribute gas, food or emergency aid.

Smaller all-terrain vehicles (like the kind Maumelle invested in for the eclipse) will be deployed to navigate congested areas, and state-managed rest areas and welcome centers will be stocked with extra supplies like first aid kits. There will be a construction holiday, too: no lane closures between Friday, April 5 and Tuesday, April 9.

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Other state agencies are also making plans. Department of Human Services Secretary Kristi Putnam said DHS is working to station as many of its employees as possible for remote or at-home work on the day of the eclipse. (DHS facilities that operate 24/7 with residents and clients who need services will remain operational, Putnam said.)

Twenty-six of the state’s 52 state parks fall within the eclipse’s path of totality, Lewis said, and parks within that band “are currently at 89% occupancy.” The parks department has made plans to manage traffic both during the event and afterward, he said. It’s expected that 65% of eclipse gazers will depart on Tuesday, April 9, with an additional 20% expected to leave the area Wednesday.

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Arkansas Department of Education Secretary Jacob Oliva said the educational piece of the puzzle shouldn’t be overlooked amid the fervor about tourism and potential economic impact. While around 103 school districts have reported they’ll close for eclipse day, Oliva said, educational opportunities abound.

Brian Chilson
Education Secretary Jacob Oliva

Our agency’s done over 20 professional developments” with teachers, he said, training educators on how to prep their students for safe and rewarding eclipse viewing. The state’s deployed over a million eclipse glasses to local libraries, and the University of Central Arkansas is doing “a real world data grab of light speed and sound throughout the whole experience.”

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There’s even a program in partnership with Harvard University that translates the eclipse experience for blind students. “As the sunlight beams begin to dim,” Oliva said, “the light-sound device will change to musical tones, so we’re making sure that every student in Arkansas is able to participate.” More on that soon, we hope.

Meanwhile, check out the state’s dashboard of eclipse events and, if you’re planning your travel in early April, bookmark the iDriveArkansas portal, where traffic congestion and transportation emergency information will be broadcast.

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