For years, transplanted Australian Joe Mack plotted out where he'd plant himself for the 2017 eclipse.
He's retired these days to Durham, N.C., not far from where the path of totality will run Monday. But, historically, an August day in that region is clouded over 65 percent of the time. St. Joseph, by contrast, typically gets overcast just 5 percent of the time.
So months ago he booked a campsite at Rosecrans Memorial Airport. He drove his Ford Taurus station wagon half-way across the continent and pitched his tent Saturday.
Then the rains came. And the forecast for late morning and early afternoon Monday — the eclipsing hours — called for cloudy weather and a decent chance of showers.
''I'm rolling the dice and staying here,'' said the biochemist and 69-year-old amateur astronomer. ''I don't have a backup plan.''
But even if he did, there aren’t any guaranteed clear spots to go.
Clouds will likely spoil the view of Monday’s total solar eclipse for many in Missouri hoping to catch a view of what could be a once-in-a-lifetime event.
If forecast models hold true, there will only be a few spots in the Kansas City area and central Missouri — maybe even southeast Missouri — with clear skies allowing a view of the eclipse.
“It will be tough to find some clear skies in the eclipse path, but there could be a few lucky people that find a break,” said Jared Leighton, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pleasant Hill.
The forecast dampened hopes not only for local residents but many who converged this weekend on St. Joseph, which has been billed as a prime eclipse-watching location.
Only Carbondale, Ill., (two minutes 41.6 seconds) and Hopkinsville, Ky., (two minutes 41.2 seconds) stand in line for a longer moment out of the sun than St. Joseph’s two minutes 38 seconds. An even longer eclipse will put parts of southwest Texas in the dark for nearly four and a half minutes — on April 8, 2024. (St. Joseph had a three minutes-plus eclipse in 1806.)
The city and surrounding Buchanan County started bracing for the blackout years ago when Michael Bakich, the senior editor at Astronomy magazine, alerted the city that this particular Monday would have a tanning pause. And that it was a big deal.
“Likening a partial eclipse to a total eclipse,” he’s written, “is like comparing almost dying to dying.”
That kicked off years of promotion and planning to make the most of the incoming skygazers, and the income they could represent, without getting smothered by eclipse pilgrims.
Jim Fairles and his son Chris drove 15 hours from Ontario, Canada, to catch the show. On Saturday, they'd started checking the forecast every hour or so. They were contemplating heading northwest on Monday if the clouds that cleared after Sunday morning's thunderstorm returned on Monday.
''We really, really don't want to miss it,'' said Jim Fairles, a 61-year-old veterinarian. ''Anxious? Yes. Absolutely.''
They're hoping to photograph the solar eclipse with a telescope mounted on a motorized equatorial mount that can track a spot in the sky in motion with the Earth turning on its axis.
''It’s not going to come along again for a long time, so we want to get the best possible view,'' Chris Fairles said.
Naturally, any place out of the shade is a view to the sun, or to the moon swinging between Earth and the sun. Still, organizers have set up at least six spots in St. Joseph for crowds to watch together.
The biggest is the Rosecrans airport, a civil and military facility west of the Missouri River and northeast of downtown St. Joseph. About 700 camping permits were sold for the weekend. Another 4,200 parking passes have been snatched up. Airport manager Adam Freeman is expecting about 18,000 people (sharing 145 portable toilets) to spread across the the site on Monday.
''We haven't heard if people are going elsewhere because of the weather,'' he said. ''We'll just have to see.''
The clouds are expected to begin rolling into the area through the overnight hours, said Leighton, at the Weather Service in Pleasant Hill, while looking at a forecast of cloud cover.
And those clouds are expected to linger throughout the day Monday.
"It's very difficult to find a place that is going to be completely free of clouds," Leighton said.
"But there is still some breaks being indicated somewhere in Missouri and potentially Nebraska, so not all is lost. It's something to be at least hopeful for — that there could be a few breaks in the clouds."
Rain is possible with those clouds, so showers and maybe a few thunderstorms will pass through Monday morning.
If the clouds do break, spectators should prepare for hot temperatures. Temperatures could get into the upper 80s, maybe low 90s. The heat index could reach into the upper 90s.
If you think of driving to a different location, it might be difficult to pinpoint a clear spot. The cloud cover is expected to stretch all the way from central Nebraska to central Missouri and possibly even southeast Missouri.
Despite the forecast of cloudy skies, some remained hopeful.
Casey Carlile of Lenexa booked her St. Joseph campsite in January. She's waited eagerly since. The 25-year-old had seen a lunar eclipse before — where the Earth's shadow darkens the moon — but never a time when the moon blotted out the sun.
She was cringing at the weather report, and crossing her fingers.
''I'm just hoping and hoping that it's clear for the eclipse,'' she said.
Prepared for crowds
Folks have been expected to travel from around the world to flock to the East Hills Mall; Civic Center Park, where the annual Trails West Festival will be happening; the Remington Nature Center; the St. Jo Casino; and Heritage Park.
Cops, emergency management professionals and the local convention and visitors bureau said even late last week that they had nothing but guesses about how many people would make the journey to St. Joseph. Would the city’s population of nearly 90,000 grow by a fourth for a day? By half? Would it double?
Planners have even contemplated as many as 500,000 out-of-towners. After all, St. Joseph is an easy drive from Kansas City, Des Moines, Iowa, and Omaha, Neb. Minneapolis is just six hours away up Interstate 35. It’s not hard to imagine people from there taking a three-day weekend to make it to a seemingly once-in-a-lifetime event, one that people treat with nearly religious reverence.
But, who knows?
“Ordinarily if you’re planning on an event, you can look at ticket sales for an estimate of how many people might come,” said Jada McClintick, the emergency management director for St. Joseph. “But you don’t need a ticket to look at the sky.”
Neither, she said, is there a reliable way to know where around the city people are likely to plant themselves for Monday’s eclipse. In St. Joseph, the moon begins to inch in front of the sun at 11:40 a.m., achieves totality at 1:07 p.m. and ends at 2:34 p.m.
Traffic is equally unpredictable, other than that even low-end crowd estimates figure to pour more motorists along Interstate 29 and U.S. 36 than the highways were designed to carry.
Assuming people continue with their plans despite the cloudy outlook, traffic could be heavy.
Where will the bottlenecks be?
“Every interchange,” said Don Wichern, the district engineer for the northwest regional office of the Missouri Department of Transportation.
He expected Frederick Avenue exits off I-29 to be the worst. MoDot is deploying traffic technicians at major stoplights, ready to override mechanical controls to adjust to backups.
In almost any scenario, he said, “I imagine Monday’s going to be a mess.”
His worst fear is of traffic backing up onto interstate lanes that could force drivers barreling down highways at 70 mph to hit the brakes. Likewise, he worries about people pulling onto shoulders to watch the eclipse and getting struck by passing traffic.
“We’re telling people not to put on their (nearly opaque eclipse viewing) glasses. Not to take photos while their driving,” he said. “Everybody needs to have a full tank of gas so they’re not running out if we get gridlock. I hope it doesn’t happen, but we could get gridlock.”
Especially afterward. Like a ball game, spectators began moving in well before showtime. Most hotels and campgrounds insisted on people booking three nights — all the better to bring the tourist dollars for a long weekend.
Once the sun reappears in the sky — if it isn’t covered up by cloudy skies — there won’t be much reason to dawdle in St. Joseph. So virtually all the visitors will head home about the same time.
MoDot trucks will be strung across the swath of the state where the eclipse will pass to help stranded drivers. They’ll carry candy for diabetics and water for those dehydrated on an August day.
McClintick, the emergency management director, started her job early this year and has done virtually nothing but prepare for the eclipse. It’s meant coordinating law enforcement and medical teams. She said at least 10 extra ambulance crews were brought in for the event along with about a dozen extra medical emergency workers.
“We’ve tried to answer every what-if question we could think of,” she said. “We still don’t know quite what to expect.”
Area police departments have canceled any off days and made plans to shift officers between jurisdictions to respond to what comes up.
“We’ve rehearsed and practiced for years and years for the different scenarios,” said St. Joseph Police Capt. Jeff Wilson. “We’re as ready as we can be.”
The Buchanan County Sheriff’s Department plans to have extra hands at the jail and throughout the county.
“Our biggest worry is mobility,” said Capt. Thomas Cates. “Will we be able to get where we’re needed.”
Whether all that planning could be for naught remained unclear Sunday. All anyone could do was watch the skies.