2017 – USA

2017 – USA

 

The ‘Great American Eclipse’ of 2017 should have been the most accessible in my eclipse chasing career. It was a very special eclipse, and will always remain a highlight in my life.  Yet I did not expect to face such significant barriers in engaging in my outreach and community planning work.  In the end I was able to support many communities through their process of community eclipse planning.  However, the cost to my own personal finances was significant.  The experience has taken a while to recover from, and has led to me having to take pause from my outreach activities.

I had been working to help prepare for the 2017 total eclipse for almost three years.  This was such a unique eclipse, as the path of totality made landfall across 14 states in the U.S. Over 1,000 communities lay within the path of totality, and none of these communities had ever experienced a total eclipse in living history.  12 million people lived within the path, and millions more traveled on the day to see it. It was huge.

Estimating the population within the path of totality. Credit: Michael Zeiler, GreatAmericanEclipse.com

I linked in with the American Astronomical Society Eclipse Planning Task Force back in 2014, where I attended their first meetings about the eclipse online. At that time, I was already helping the Faroe Islands in their eclipse preparations, drawing upon the lessons I learned from the eclipse in my home region in 2012.
Following the total eclipse of 2015 in the Faroe Islands, I again interviewed key people involved in planning. Spending months collating this material along with the material from 2012, I developed the White Paper in Community Eclipse Planning.

In August 2015 I was invited to deliver two presentations at the American Astronomical Society Eclipse Planning Task Force meeting. It was at this meeting that I launched the White Paper, sharing lessons on how to prepare communities across the whole path. I was aware that no other individual attending these meetings had prior experience of helping prepare communities for eclipses.

Eclipse Planning Task Force, American Astronomical Society, Portland Meeting, August 21, 2015. (c) @kthonhi
Eclipse Planning Task Force, American Astronomical Society, Portland Meeting, August 21, 2015. (c) @kthonhi

I also put together my own viewing plans with The Independent Traveller, arranging to view from Wyoming.

I started participating in the monthly teleconference with the NASA Eclipse Outreach Networking group, in early 2016.  I also commenced my web consultations with Eclipse Coordinators across the path of totality.  I was scheduling in an average of three consults per week, representing communities right across the path of totality.  I was approached many tourism groups, chamber of commerces, and other key organisations, and provided key information about preparing for the eclipse. I also delivered lectures and workshops about the eclipse of 2017 in Ireland and the UK, and online to various places across the US.

In August 2016, one year before the eclipse, I did a quick survey of eclipse chasers to identify what they were planning for the eclipse. I used this information to inform my web consultations and to feed into eclipse preparations in the US.

I had already commenced preparations to emigrate to the U.S so I could be on the ground delivering much needed support in the six months leading up to the eclipse. Immigration applications are hugely time consuming and costly, and this took months of full time work and preparation.

One of the early challenges was that there were very few official resources describing how big the 2017 eclipse was going to be. Prior to 2016, there was nothing official from NASA; no official page from the AAS. No documents or guidance about anything related to the eclipse. Having been involved in eclipse planning in the Faroe Islands where I was involved TWO YEARS before the eclipse, I found the lack of coordination in the US – which was covering the whole of the US – quite alarming.

In November 2016 my Immigration case was finally approved. I had successfully shown that I was an ‘Alien of Exceptional Ability’ – I was a highly skilled individual; I was a recognised international expert on the eclipse experience and eclipse planning; and that the work I would be doing was in the National Interest. This was a very exciting time!

I had already been planning my path of totality consulting tour for almost two years. The time had now come, and I put much effort into finalising the details.

In January 2017 I announced an Expressions of Interest for my Path of Totality Outreach Tour, which I had delayed starting to give time for my visa to be processed. I developed a detailed program of outreach activities.

I was inundated with requests to come to provide in-community support. 31 communities requested my involvement, which equated to 90 days of activities, involving 180 events. I started more detailed preparations and sponsorship requests, working full time. Noting my visa processing involved many multiple errors,  I had to delay the outreach tour starting date.  As a result of my visa application in process,  I was unable to attend the AAS Eclipse Planning meeting.

Unfortunately, continued trivial errors in the visa processing delayed the process significantly.   Repeated requests to expedite my visa were unsuccessful, despite the wonderful support of many eclipse planning leaders and groups including NASA and the AAS.  These issues directly impacted upon my ability to provide support to so many US communities. I had never before faced so many difficulties and barriers with undertaking eclipse outreach due to mistakes and errors being made by immigration officials.

Sadly, at the end of March 2017 I had to withdraw my planning tour as my visa was still being delayed by errors.  I was forced to withdrew my planned support to over 30 communities.  It was very frustrating having to turn down requests for help.  Despite these barriers, I continued to do what I could from the UK.  I also did a quick visit to Nebraska in June to undertake some pre-eclipse planning events and free public lectures which were very well attended.  I also did extensive media leading up to the eclipse, and was featured across major networks in print and TV.  Frustratingly, my visa was STILL not processed in time I was due to travel to the eclipse, so I was significantly restricted in my outreach activities for the eclipse. This negated three years of planning, and ended with me facing a significant financial loss.

Despite being severely restricted, I was proud to provide planning support to many communities in the years leading up to their eclipse.  Many communities had very successful events, and I was able to continue gathering in-depth information about the planning process and task timelines that add much further detail to my White Paper on Community Eclipse Planning.   Following the eclipse, I continued on with my planning insights interviews, giving even further hindsight lessons.  This information is valuable for planning for the next total eclipse visible across the US in 2024 and I remain available for community eclipse planning.

I was able to experience the total eclipse of 2017 in wonderfully clear skies based in one of the most beautiful locations in the path in the Teton Valley.  I shared this experience with my fellow tour participants with The Independent Traveller, and we were able to intimately experience and share this memorable and awe-inspiring eclipse.  Despite the many challenges, the total eclipse will remain one of my favourites.  See my blog post for details on what was experienced on the day, and the BBC interview I recorded live just minutes before totality.

TESTIMONIAL FROM THE COMMUNITY

“Clearly there is a crucial need for expert logistical advice to be widely disseminated from coast to coast and from north to south. Dr. Russo has experience providing such advice to local governments, health and safety officials, and the news media in one country after another for each of the last few eclipses. She is well prepared to do the same here in the U.S. in the run-up to the 2017 eclipse.  Dr.  Russo is supporting American eclipse planners as best she can from her location in the United Kingdom, but she could do much more if she were in the U.S.”

 

Rick Fienberg, Press Officer, American Astronomical Society

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