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‘Extraordinary’: total solar eclipse wows watchers in north Texas
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‘Extraordinary’: total solar eclipse wows watchers in north Texas

Ignas Barauskas almost missed it.

He bought plane tickets from his home in Lithuania to the United States about a month ago. After a series of flight delays, he landed in Dallas around midnight, ready for a once-in-a-lifetime total eclipse of the sun.

“I probably wouldn’t have come to Dallas if it hadn’t been for the total solar eclipse,” Barauskas said. “It seems like it will be a grand event, the sun hiding away during the day.”

On Monday morning he took public transit – because all rental cars had been booked in the city for months – to Dallas’s White Rock Lake, arriving moments before the partial eclipse started. All morning he and millions of other umbraphiles, or eclipse chasers, worried about the gloomy forecast of thick clouds.

But then, just before the total eclipse began, the clouds parted. The view of the sun’s brilliant corona left the city in evening-like darkness for as much as four minutes.

“Everyone was screaming,” Barauskas said. “Like a concert.”

Barauskas was among the millions who traveled to the path of totality that stretched from western Mexico to Newfoundland on Monday – much of it under lingering cloudy skies.

The Dallas-Fort Worth region was the largest metropolitan area on the path of totality for Monday’s total solar eclipse, making north Texas a major destination and creating potential headaches for locals. The cloudy weather left some scrambling at the last minute to change plans and head for clearer skies, but for much of north Texas totality itself was clear.

“Better than all expectations,” Barauskas said.

A small town prepares

Some early estimates suggested over a million visitors would travel to Texas for the eclipse. The state banned oversized vehicles on highways in the eclipse’s path for all of Monday. Several counties along the path issued disaster declarations to free up resources for additional law enforcement and other emergency services.

Ennis, a small town 35 miles (56km) south of Dallas with about 23,000 residents, sits right on the eclipse’s center line. City officials said they expected as many as 150,000 visitors for the celestial event, and doubled the number of ambulances and emergency workers standing by.

The city manager, Marty Nelson, said Ennis started planning for the event about two years ago, when the town hall started getting calls from Nasa scientists and other experts warning them about the attention that was about to hit.

“I’ve seen an eclipse before, it was a little underwhelming,” said Ashley Colunga, the city’s marketing and communications director. “We really started digging into the research, and we’re like, oh, OK, this is not your everyday partial eclipse. This is something extraordinary.”

“Oh, and by the way, your small town happens to be right on the centerline,” Nelson said.

Spring for Ennis usually means another major event – a wildflower bloom of the state’s iconic bluebonnets that brings in thousands of day-trippers and landscape photographers. The bluebonnets are in peak bloom right now, making for a double-whammy for tourism and traffic.

“April is a crazy busy and wonderful month with the bluebonnet trails, opening our local farmers’ market, then we have our bluebonnet festival,” Nelson said. “And now, here comes the total solar eclipse and maybe 100,000 extra people.”

An opportunity to educate amid the wonder

While others in north Texas were slow to realize the potential disruptions of the total solar eclipse, the researchers at Dallas’s Perot Museum of Nature and Science had been preparing since 2019.

“People thought when we were booking hotel rooms two years ago that we were crazy,” said Linda Silver, the museum’s CEO. The Perot’s ticketed eclipse event sold out last year, and the museum expected about 7,000 people to appear on Monday with another 35,000 at a nearby park.

Silver said the museum had ordered 1m eclipse glasses, and were handing them out at schools, community centers and retirement homes around the area in the last few weeks. The museum, with help from Carnegie Science, flew in about 30 astronomers – many of them bilingual – to help with educational presentations and to answer questions about the once-in-a-lifetime event.

“This is an opportunity for everyone to participate in science,” Silver said. “You don’t often get that aha! moment.”

Caitlin Ray, an 11th grade student from Houston, was on a campus visit at Southern Methodist University on Monday, just in time for totality. On the campus, students and families from the surrounding neighborhoods filled the campus’s main quad to stare skyward. Ray said she hoped to study astronomy, and was excited for the scientific possibilities the eclipse provides.

“I’m especially excited to see the corona and see if it’s going to be circular,” Ray said. “If it is, that means that there is a lot of solar activity, and there’s a lot of research that can come from that.”

Clouds blocked the sun for much of the partial eclipse, but – like elsewhere in north Texas – parted just before totality. Alongside oohs and aahs, people cheered and shouted God Bless America.

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“This was one of the most incredible things I have ever seen,” said Nikhil Kathuria, an SMU junior studying finance.

Only a few school districts in the area, including Ennis, closed their campuses on Monday, but most said they planned eclipse-themed lessons for the day. In Arlington, between Dallas and Fort Worth, classes were on as usual, but that didn’t stop the Williams family from taking the day off.

Kendarias, 16, Genyria, 16, and Genyiah, 10, had claimed their spot at an outdoor amphitheater hours before the eclipse was set to begin.

“I haven’t seen something like this,” Kendarias said. “So what happens to the birds that are in the sky?”

During a brief break in the clouds, many of the people around cheered. It wasn’t clear how long the sun would stick around, but the Williamses weren’t worried.

“It’s the first time for everybody,” Kendarias said.

“Just take a chance to experience it for yourself,” Genyria said.

At the nearby University of Texas at Arlington, home to one of the three largest planetariums in the state, McKenna Dowd had a backup plan just in case the clouds made eclipse-viewing impossible. Dowd is a program coordinator at the planetarium and had programmed a projection to replicate the daytime sky just outside – without clouds.

“It’s the next best thing,” Dowd said. “Hopefully the clouds clear up. I’m trying not to think about it.”

She said her team had been planning a “solar-bration” for the eclipse for more than a year. Outside, UTA scientists had set up telescopes and people passed out eclipse glasses and Moon Pie desserts. Regardless of the weather, Dowd said, it was a chance for the community to share a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“We all share the same stars, the same sun, the same moon. We can share that community,” Dowd said. “No matter what it ends up being today.”

Gambling on the weather – and winning

Looking outside Monday morning, Eric Rude worried he’d need to find a new spot to watch the celestial show.

He’d traveled nearly 1,400 miles (2,250km) from his home in Pocatello, Idaho, to see totality in rural Greenville, Texas. With cloud cover forecast over most of Texas, Rude wondered if he should get in the car and start driving toward friendlier skies.

“I’m just going to be as flexible as I can,” Rude said. “I can’t wait to see it again.”

Rude teaches high school biology in Pocatello. As a kid, he would read issues of National Geographic, from which he learned about total solar eclipse and hoped he would one day get to see one. In 2017, his home town was at 98% of totality for the last US eclipse. He drove the 50 miles north to see the total solar eclipse.

“I was just so moved by it,” Rude said. “Seeing totality is so much different than even 99%.”

He and his wife – who missed the last eclipse – decided to stay put at a public celebration in Greenville. Clouds were thicker than in Dallas, but for a portion of totality, cleared up enough to see.

“It was incredible,” Rude said. “It’s hard to put into words.”

  • Taylor Good contributed reporting from Dallas

Source: theguardian.com