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Solar eclipse to draw millions to mostly rural counties

Total eclipse

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Parts of 290 counties in 14 states will be in the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse's path of totality 

When a total solar eclipse darkens the sky Aug. 21 — the first to cross the country since June 8, 1918 — Grant County, Ore. is going to be an ideal place to watch.

It’s directly in the zone of totality, the path where the moon will completely block out the sun for two-and-a-half minutes as it moves west to east, to South Carolina. Outside of the zone, observers will still see a partial eclipse. But that route will likely bring untold millions to a narrow band of the country that will see a one-in-a-lifetime display, to places with emergency departments not suited for such large crowds.

Counties across the eclipse’s path, most of them rural, will become as dense as cities for a few days, and requiring commensurate services from law enforcement and public health departments, on top of emergency management. The eclipse will cross over larger urban counties in the Midwest and Southeast, including part of Jackson County, Mo. (Kansas City), Davidson County, Tenn. (Nashville), Richland County, S.C. (Columbia) and Charleston County, S.C., though possible cloudy conditions in the East may interfere with viewing.

In Grant County, clouds are sparse, there’s not much light pollution and public land —66 percent of the 4,500 square-mile county — is plentiful. County Judge Scott Myers expects a half-million people will visit his county of 7,000 residents and one stop light, and he’s concerned because the eclipse comes during the height of fire season, when the high desert region east of the Cascade Mountains has been starved of rainfall and snow melt for months. The same goes for other parts of Oregon and Wyoming, before the eclipse moves east into damper climates. The eclipse will be at maximum at 10:23 a.m. in Grant County.

“We’re pretty nervous about the influx of people,” he said. “It’s dead-center on our fire season. A lot of people expected to come in are smokers, particularly the Germans and the Japanese.”

The county airport will be closed all day but staffed with 100 firefighters, eight helicopters and six planes.

Adding to the fire threat, the visitors will be filling in parts of the county that are usually vacant, adding to the complexity of the emergency response effort if a fire or other disaster breaks out.

“It only takes one or two accidents on a small county like this to tie up all of your emergency response,” said Grant County emergency management director Ted Williams. “We could be dealing with traffic issues right up to the moment this happens.”

 “Communication is going to be our biggest vulnerability,” he said. “With the canyons, we have very little cell phone coverage, and what we do have will be overloaded when you have that many people. You’ll have to be using a satellite phone or a land line.”

 Landowners along the zone of totality are selling campsites and RV parking for around $400 a night.

“We just know when someone puts an ad on our chamber of commerce that they can put up 15 RVs, for $400 a night… they book them all in about 20 minutes,” Myers said. “So, we can get some sort of idea how many people will be on private property, but given how much BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land we have here, that’s when it’s hard to predict.”

Residents who won’t be cashing in on letting visitors stay on their property have expressed some concerns to Myers, many of which reflect his own.

“Retired people are worried about if they’ll be able to get to the store, get their meds, fuel…if people will try to trespass on their property,” he said. “I’m worried about whether there will be enough fuel to get people out of town. A few RVs can drain a gas station’s tanks, so they’ll need to ration, if they can’t bring in temporary tanks. I’m worried stores won’t plan ahead enough.”

It’s not just for Aug. 21. Given the limited capacity of the roads leading into most of Eastern Oregon, tourism boards are recommending coming days in advance to avoid traffic jams.

“There will be gawkers who think they can leave Portland and get to Eastern Oregon that day,” Myers said. “They’re going to be stuck somewhere between Mt. Hood and Madras.”

Williams said the planning exercise will be productive, particularly if Grant County, among others in the central and eastern parts of the state, someday take in refugees from the west in the event of a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake and tsunami that would affect coastal Oregon and Washington. 

“We’ll be tasked with taking a lot of people, and this will show us what we’re capable of,” he said.

Bill Brinton has a harder time estimating how many people will show up in Buchanan County, Mo. where he is the emergency management director and chairman of the regional eclipse planning committee, which includes 150 people from seven counties. The eclipse will peak at 1:07 p.m.

“There are 20 million people within a four-hour drive of St. Joseph,” the county seat, he said. “Another 200 million live 8–10 hours away.”

More than 2 million live in the Kansas City metropolitan region, half of which will get a shade of the eclipse, but nothing like Buchanan County, home to 95,000 people.

Brinton expects a lot of the viewers to stop in strip mall parking lots along a road that runs directly under the path of the eclipse.

“A few cars here, a few cars there,” he said. “When it comes, people are just going to stop in the middle of the street and watch from their car hoods.”

Toward the end of the eclipse’ path over North America, it will pass over Richland County, S.C., home to the state’s capital, at 2:43 p.m.

“We look at this as similar to Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1987 in terms of planning,” said Michael Byrd, Richland County’s director of emergency management. “We know we’ll need lots of traffic control, extra public safety resources available. We’ll be monitoring everything that is going on. I feel like we’ll be able to handle things with the resources we have, it will just be an all-hands-on-deck situation.”

On top of emergency management planning, some counties have taken steps to regulate what they can in advance.

Jackson County, Ill. passed an ordinance regulating temporary campgrounds, requiring landowners to register with the county health department, requiring landowners to maintain those campgrounds to state and local standards, including the county food service sanitation ordinance for any food vendors.

The county also updated its portable toilet and handwashing station ordinances.

Washington County, Idaho, with a population of 10,000, has already declared a disaster, well ahead of when anyone arrives, and 100,000 are expected.

The lessons the county learned after massive snowfall collapsed 225 buildings earlier in the year taught Commission Chairman Kirk Chandler it was a good idea to get in front of that.

“We were the first to declare a disaster with the snow and we were the first to get paid,” he said. “Roads are going to be impassible, the state department of transportation is saying traffic isn’t going to be moving most of the day.”

Like Grant County, Washington County will be very dry, and the fire risk concerns Chandler. “People are going to be pulling over into dry grass and will probably keep their engines going,” he said. “That’s a tinderbox waiting to happen.”

The eclipse will “make landfall” in Lincoln and Tillamook counties, Ore. at 10:16 a.m. PDT. It will leave the United States at 4:09 p.m. EDT from Georgetown and Charleston counties, in South Carolina. Along the way, the zone of totality will cross through parts of 290 counties in 14 states.

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