Years of eclipse planning pay off
More than a week after the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse, visitors are still praising the community's preparation for the largest event in Jefferson County history.
"I've been monitoring all the social media input from visitors and it has been overwhelmingly positive," said Lysa Vattimo, who was hired by the city of Madras to coordinate its preparation. "We've received kudos from all over the world."
By all accounts, the two and one-half years of planning by the city of Madras and Jefferson County to ensure a positive experience for the thousands of visitors who were expected to pour into the area was a resounding success.
"The entire plan went exactly as we anticipated — even the heavy traffic on Monday and Tuesday were part of our plan, and even when we said visitors would trickle in," she said. "The benefit for Madras was they did come in slowly, unlike Prineville; they got slammed from the beginning."
"Kudos to our residents; they went out, fueled up, got their groceries, and it was evident," said Vattimo. "We heard reports that gas stations got a little low on Wednesday, but the trucks came in on Thursday and refilled their tanks."
Throughout the process, Vattimo kept tabs on the number of people filling the many campgrounds and parking spaces around the area. "We know that we hit at least 100,000 because of the campgrounds, the traffic and the number of airplanes," she said.
Jefferson County Emergency Manager Mark Carman, who coordinated the county's emergency plans, was very pleased with the outcome. "I would rate our operation an A," he said. "For 848 days of planning, nobody came up and said, 'You overplanned.' I feel good about it."
"We knew people coming in wasn't going to be the problem, it was the egress — people exiting. We knew that would be an issue," he said. "Our message from the beginning was: Arrive early, stay put, and leave late."
Carman speculated that many of the visitors couldn't afford to be gone for four days, and attempted to arrive late and leave early, causing the backed up traffic on Monday and Tuesday after the eclipse.
The county prepared for all kinds of emergencies, setting up an operation center at the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, with eight people working 14-hour shifts, starting Thursday, Aug. 17, and shutting down Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 22. The local operation reported to the Joint Information Center at the Deschutes County Fairgrounds, to keep all of Central Oregon informed.
"We were the hub for the county," he said. "When the plane crash came out, we let the folks at Redmond know."
JCSO personnel brought six trailers to the sheriff's office, to ensure that law enforcement officers were on-site and available at all times. "At the sheriff's office, we had five vehicles on duty with five officers (plus a second officer in each vehicle) — one at Crooked River Ranch, one south, one north, one at Camp Sherman and one rover. We were fully staffed at the lake (Billy Chinook) with two PGE deputies and three other people — the heaviest staffing we've ever had in the history of the sheriff's office."
Aside from a house fire at a vacant house on D Street on Aug. 18, a fatal single-engine plane crash in Willow Creek Canyon on Aug. 19, and a few motor vehicle accidents, there were not many emergencies during the six-day operation.
"We ended up spending a lot of time helping with traffic issues on Dogwood and North Adams (near SolarTown)," said Carman. "We all team up and make it happen."
Jefferson County Emergency Medical Services geared up for the influx by contracting for three ambulances from American Medical Response, in order to have five available at all times.
"The three ambulances only did seven transfers in the region, but it was good to have them here in case we needed them," said JCEMS Chief Liz Heckathorn. "We were very happy to be overprepared. The state of Oregon SERV-OR sent us two paramedics and two EMTs that were fully volunteer, and they helped us supplement 911 staffing here for Jefferson County."
From the time that people began arriving through the end of the eclipse, Heckathorn said that it was eerily quiet in the region, with fewer than average calls. About 10 minutes after the end of the eclipse on Monday morning, that began to change, with 16 calls coming in to 911 by 7 p.m.
"We were prepared for the worst, but it was just amazing that there was not a single toneout for EMS during the eclipse," she said. "There were a lot of people in town, but everybody kept their cool, largely due to the planning and everybody being prepared."
Heckathorn's assessment was validated at St. Charles Madras, which was not as busy as expected.
"The increase in hospital utilization didn't come to fruition at the levels we expected," said Jennifer Welander, chief financial officer for St. Charles Health System. "We learned a lot of things about how to better prepare for emergencies and we celebrated the fact that we were ready."
Visits to the hospital and clinic were a bit different from usual, she pointed out. "Normal tourism wasn't here, so it was replaced with eclipse tourism. But it was not significant."
"We were really proud of the teams," said Welander. "We were really well-prepared for the eclipse; that was our goal: to be really well-prepared for our patients and the visitors to Central Oregon."
At the Jefferson County Fire District, Chief Brian Huff agreed that the week went "exceptionally well." JCFD had an average of 20 people on duty at all times, with 10-hour patrols.
He, on the other hand, was extremely busy with inspections, to make sure all of the area camps were safe. "I literally spent two weeks prior and all through doing inspecting," said Huff, who put in 14-hour days. "There were issues, but they resolved."