Eclipse casts shades of worries and opportunities

Photo contributed by NASAThe moon passed between NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory and the sun. The image combines individual frames from two wavelengths of extreme ultraviolet light.

Eastern Oregon emergency workers anticipate a flood of tourists seeking to witness the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse.

Two paths to experience the path of totality in our region are Highway 26 and Highway 395, which wind through rural counties. Tom Strandberg with the Oregon Department of Transportation said the focus is on a safe flow of traffic over the narrow roads.

“Our two-lane highways can only accommodate so many vehicles per hour safely,” he said — a rate of about 1,200-1,500 vehicles.

But if 40,000 or more drivers decide to leave Grant County at once, Strandberg said traffic will bog down and one crash or stalled car would make for even longer delays.

To counter some of that, he said ODOT maintenance workers are undertaking “push, pull and drag” training.

“If it’s a stalled or stranded vehicle that is blocking traffic, our crews are getting trained on how to move those vehicles to a safer spot to keep traffic moving,” he said. But if roads are clogged, it will take road crews awhile to reach the scene.

While no one has firm numbers for how many people are coming to Oregon to see the first total solar eclipse in the state in 38 years, the Oregon Office of Emergency Management is planning on at least a million visitors. Strandberg said the transportation department is working on getting a “ballpark estimate of how many visitors are in an area.”

Permanent recorders on select sections of highways 26 and 395 allow the department to collect traffic data, he said. ODOT is using those recorders to see how many vehicles are entering and leaving eclipse viewing areas in Grant County, for example, to generate rough estimates of how many vehicles remain in the vicinity.

Strandberg also said the agency is beefing up its Trip Check website to show the pace of traffic through the rural highways.

“We’re trying to implement that before the eclipse, that’s the plan,” he said.

And the state is shutting down highway construction projects through the area starting the weekend before the eclipse through midnight Tuesday, Aug. 22, the day after.

ODOT’s motto for the event is “arrive early, stay put and leave late.”

“People coming the day of might be stuck in traffic jams,” Strandberg said, and a mass exodus the moment it ends will cause the same result.

He also said visitors need to come prepared.

“We expect gas stations to run out of gas, grocery stores to run out of food,” he said, and rest areas and restaurants to be full. “It’s quite an unusual situation, but we think it’s manageable.”

He warned drivers not to rely on GPS directions for rerouting around turtle-speed traffic. Strandberg said that would mean traveling over U.S. Forest Service roads and rough terrain. Not knowing those routes or having the right vehicle could mean trouble.

“People need to stay on the main highways,” he said. “That might be a long delay, but if you are on a forest road ... you might be stuck a lot longer.”

Umatilla County is not in the path of totality, but county emergency manager Tom Roberts said gaggles of tourists could end up here.

“We anticipate that the Hermiston-Pendleton area could be an overflow area for the folks who could not get a room or the space to park,” he said.

The county, he said, is in a better position than some to deal with tourists. The eclipse cuts its swath across the state after the Umatilla County Fair and before the Pendleton Round-Up. Those events have given local emergency services crucial experience dealing with big crowds.

Emergency planning for the possible rush continues, he said, with the sheriff’s office, local fire department and quick response teams considering if they should pre-stage resources along Highway 395, which spans the county north to south. And he’s working with the Umatilla Morrow Radio and Data District to ensure better communication capabilities in remote areas.

Roberts also said the Oregon Office of Emergency Management is treating the eclipse as a real-world opportunity to prepare for the Cascadia earthquake. During that catastrophe, people from the western side of the state are coming to Eastern Oregon. And the influx of eclipse tourists mimics that. Emergency officials plan to have an “after action review,” Roberts said, when they will weigh in on “what we think went right and what we think we can improve upon,” and apply those lessons to planning for Cascadia.

Roberts also flies the county’s emergency drone, which has been helpful during recent search and rescue missions and fires. Barring any emergency the day of the eclipse, he said it might be worth zipping the device into darkened skies and snapping a few photos.

After all, he said, this is a once in a lifetime event for many.

Local school districts consider the celestial spectacle a moneymaking opportunity. The Huntington School District off Interstate 84 in Baker County is offering 20-foot by 20-foot campsites for $300 for three nights. And the Prairie City School District on Highway 26 in Grant County has 212 spaces its offering for three nights for $150.

Prairie City superintendent Julie Gurczynski said the district has sold 45 sites, so there are spaces left. The proceeds first cover the costs of portable toilets and clean-up, she said, then go to teachers for classroom supplies, field trips and other items that are outside the district’s budget.

The district’s FFA and sports teams are serving dinner Sunday night and lunch Monday, and those revenues will help those organizations.

The district has 150 students in K-12. Gurczynski said the school board encouraged her to do as much as she could with the eclipse. The event will bring in money that helps with district fundraising, she said, and maybe put some in the bank.

She also said the community is nervous about how many people might come and the chaos that could bring, but locals are excited for visitors and the eclipse itself. District staff start back to work the day of the event, but Gurczynski said she plans on closing the office 9 a.m. to noon so she and employees can take experience when morning turns to night.

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Contact Phil Wright at pwright@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0833.

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