By Pat Caldwell, John Braese and Mitchell Willetts
The upcoming eclipse promises to bring huge crowds to Oregon from all over, and state and local agencies are preparing for the worst.
At least one million people are expected to flock to the state, the Oregon Department of Transportation said, potentially straining state infrastructure and services.
“I think the whole state is going to see traffic like we’ve never seen before,” said David House, department public information officer.
House can’t predict the number of visitors Malheur County will see, but said that the county is a gateway to Oregon for travelers. Some of the worst traffic could occur right here.
“We know our roads were not made for this kind of traffic,” House said. “We’re asking people to be prepared to be stuck in traffic for a very, very long time.”
Anybody heading out onto the roads should bring water, food, and plan out bathroom breaks before getting in the car, he said.
Interstates will see the most traffic, he said, with Interstate 84 expected to be the worst.
Any route in and out of the state, or in and out of total darkness will be jammed for days, he said.
Local police agencies plan to add extra patrols during the ramp-up, the day of the eclipse and a few days after the event.
“None of the criminal staff will be able to take any vacation time during that week,” said Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe.
Wolfe expects many visitors to stay for a few days after the event.
Safeguarding private property, maintaining traffic flows and providing a safe environment locally are three of the chief goals for local law enforcement during the eclipse.
“Our main areas, of course, will be traffic. And we will be working on private property rights. In other words, where the path of totality goes in our part of the county is up north, which is mostly private property. So we will be helping to protect those private rights,” said Wolfe.
Ontario Police Chief Cal Kunz said the city has planned for the eclipse for a long time and will set up a mobile command center the day of the event.
He said he will add more patrol officers as well.
“Our main concerns are beefing up our staff during the event,” said Kunz. “We will hopefully double the number of officers available.”
Kunz said all police agencies in the county will coordinate and help each other during the eclipse.
“We will have to be flexible. The deployment of our staff will follow where the need will be,” said Kunz.
Nyssa Police Chief Ray Rau said assisting with traffic flow will be a big goal for his department.
“We anticipate an increase in traffic and when you increase cars on the road, the propensity for crashes also increases,” said Rau.
Rau said his department will add two officers to regular duties during the eclipse.
The Oregon State Police will also add staff in response to the eclipse.
“We have to prepare for a lot of people so obviously our safety is very important as is the safety of ODOT, the motoring public and residents,” said Lt. Mark Duncan, the Ontario OSP station commander.
Duncan said OSP troopers will carry extra medical supplies and water during the eclipse in case of an emergency. Duncan said his agency has already completed detailed planning regarding the event.
“We try to be ahead of the game so that we are over-prepared versus being under prepared,” said Duncan.
The transportation department is concerned that statewide gridlock will delay emergency responders. To ease congestion, road construction will be limited to emergency maintenance only.
“We’re halting almost all of our summer maintenance work,” said House, with the exception of work that can’t be interrupted, such as the paving project on I-84.
With the arrival of so many people at the height of wildfire season, the transportation department worries a human triggered blaze may be likely, and asks that all visitors pay attention to roadside postings regarding fire dangers, and to follow rules listed, as well as exercise common sense.
Police are also concerned about the risk of wildfires. Some of the best eclipse viewing opportunities will be north of the county – inside public or private rangeland or forest.
“We are extremely dry right now and our fire danger is as high as it can get. We don’t want anyone driving off the road for any reason,” said Lt. Rob Hunsucker, county emergency services director.
Hunsucker – along with Rau and Wolfe – also recommended that local residents ensure they have extra food and water and gas up before the eclipse.
An influx of people to view the eclipse could strain local resources, Wolfe said.
“Just have a little extra fuel, food and water on hand – just in case,” Wolfe said.
The reason for so many people arriving into the local area to view the eclipse is obvious, said Wolfe. For one, he said, the county is close to the path of totality.
“And this is a big deal to a lot of folks. The reason our part of the world is so appealing is we have wide open spaces without a lot of lights,” said Wolfe.
The big question, of course, is how many people will arrive into the local area. The query is difficult to answer, said Hunsucker.
“Well it is hard to calculate it. There are a lot of unknowns. We don’t know exactly how many people are coming to our part of Eastern Oregon,” said Hunsucker.
Wolfe said he could not give a firm number either, though he said he expects between 10,000 and 20,000 people.
Emergency personnel have been planning for the occurrence for some time, according to Bob Dickinson, director of medical services for Malheur County.
“For emergency medical services, we are concerned about traffic,” he said. “It has also been discussed the possibility of lack of communication with people calling in to report an emergency. Cell phone towers may be overloaded and unable to process calls. Communication between dispatch and emergency responders will not be a problem.”
If large numbers do arrive, cell phone service could be a challenge, Hunsucker said.
“The towers could get overloaded. We expect that could happen,” said Hunsucker.
Kunz said he believes the eclipse event will be good for his department.
“It is kind of a positive event to test our resources in case, one day, we have a negative event. Hopefully we can get stronger from this,” said Kunz.
Treasure Valley Paramedics will have extra staff on duty as the company’s area extends to Nyssa and north on Interstate 84 to Weatherby. Although requested to staff an ambulance in Huntington during the festivities, the medics will assist Huntington and other areas only after ensuring full coverage of Malheur County, according to Dickinson.
“We are preparing for the worst, but hoping for the best,” Dickinson said.
Life Flight isn’t planning on extra units or staffing the area.
The ambulance service in Vale has staff assigned to duty for the three days surrounding the eclipse.
“We expect to see an increase in call volume, but we have the staff ready to go in Vale,” said Todd Hesse, Vale ambulance director. “Our duty during this time and all the time is to protect our citizens in the Vale district.”
At Saint Alphonsus Medical Center in Ontario, medical personnel and those need treatment will find a hospital full of staff.
“We will have extra staff on duty,” said Brad Hoaglun, communications director for the Saint Alphonsus. “Staff not already scheduled for vacations are not being allowed off during the time surrounding the eclipse.”
The hospital isn’t allowing elective surgeries during the eclipse weekend. Surgery rooms are being held ready for emergencies.
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