The area could have a lot more visitors for the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse than first anticipated if the latest prediction holds true.
The solar eclipse website GreatAmericanEclipse.com released new attendance figures on May 22, predicting a range of 13,000 visitors on the low end for the Chester region and 53,000 on the high end.
It also states that the total population for which Chester - which has one of the longest viewing durations along the path of the eclipse at 2 minutes and 40 seconds - is the closest point along the center line of the eclipse is 188,818.
"That's beyond anything we've talked about," said Brenda Owen, chairwoman of the Chester Beautification/Tourism Commission. "The only number we had been given, which was from IEMA, was between 10,000 and 20,000 extra people."
Owen noted that IEMA's estimates came early in the solar eclipse preparations and said GreatAmericanEclipse.com is a reputable resource for information about the event. Chester has its own website dedicated to the eclipse, www.chestereclipse.com.
"We are predicting as we get closer, more people will want to know more about it," Owen said.
Great American Eclipse explains its methodology as the following:
"The method for computing high and low visitation statistics starts with the assumption that a person who lives 200 miles away from the center line of the eclipse has a high probability of 2 percent for driving to the path and a low probability of 0.5 percent," the website states. "Next, the method assumes that these probabilities are halved for a distance of 400 miles away and again for 800 miles away from the center line."
The website states its population data comes from the 2010 census and is extrapolated to 2017. Total populations are computed based upon road networks and GIS mapping.
"We're trying not to get ourselves too worked up by those numbers as there's a lot of variables," said Chester Recreation Director Patti Carter. "We're still gonna do our same planning that we are. We're still going to be prepared for the high end as much as we can."
Despite the high numbers, there are variables (as noted by the website) such as poor weather and larger events capturing more regional visitors.
"Imagine 20 Woodstock festivals occurring simultaneously across the nation," wrote Michael Zeiler, the website's operator and a total solar eclipse chaser since 1991. "Large numbers of visitors will overwhelm lodging and other resources in the path of totality.
"There is a real danger during the two minutes of totality that traffic still on the road will pull over at unsafe locations with distracted drivers behind them."
Across the Mississippi River in Ste. Genevieve, Great American Eclipse is predicting a range of 17,000 to 68,000 visitors. Chester has already announced two city-sponsored viewing sites for the event.
"The plans are still on for having two public viewing sites at the Cohen Complex and Cole Park," Carter said. "What used to be the baseball field (at Cole Park) will be a viewing place there."
Carter noted that camping spots are still available at Cole Park and the city's next informational eclipse meeting is scheduled for June 27. Interested campers are advised to call 618-826-1430.
"State, county and local emergency management is all on board," Carter said. "I feel pretty good we've prepared ourselves pretty well for it, but we won't know what will happen until to we get into it."
Carter noted that a family from Ontario, Canada, will be camping at Cole Park and she has also fielded calls from England and Japan.
"People are coming, we have to be ready," she said.