Local agencies plan for eclipse congestion
For millennia, eclipses have been seen as portents of doom. In historical and literary accounts, the astronomic phenomena have been associated with the death of kings, the onset of plagues and the start of wars.
The upcoming total solar eclipse, which will touch down in Oregon the morning of Aug. 21 and include Woodburn in its path of totality, also serves as a dark omen: It could lead to a traffic disaster.
It will be the first total solar eclipse viewable from the continental United States in 38 years. And while a partial eclipse will be visible from anywhere in the United States, the 12 states and hundreds of cities that lie in the path of totality will be an attractive destination for tourists from around the globe.
The Oregon Department of Transportation is planning for congestion. "With as many as one million people expected to be in the #Eclipse2017 path of totality in Oregon Aug. 21, ODOT expects highways across the state to be crowded," reads a July 7 press release. "Many people will be from out of state and unfamiliar with our roads."
Woodburn is one of the 110 cities and towns in Oregon that lie in the path of totality, with the total eclipse in the city starting at 10:18 a.m. and lasting 1 minute, 16 seconds. Nearby towns including Gervais, St. Paul and Aurora are also in the path.
But many of Oregon's largest cities, including Portland, Eugene, Bend, Medford and Hillsboro, lie outside that path. That means in addition to the travelers from out of state, many people could be traveling within Oregon to see the solar eclipse.
"The issue we are going to have is probably gridlock," said Woodburn Mayor Kathy Figley. "Especially since the path of totality is skinny and it doesn't include Eugene and it doesn't include Portland, I think there's going to be a lot of coming and going."
Although Woodburn itself isn't tagged as a major eclipse destination, it's one of the northernmost cities in the path of totality with an exit on Interstate 5, meaning it could be a draw for road-trippers from nearby cities to the north. For months, all 270 hotel and motel rooms in Woodburn have been booked.
However, Police Chief Jim Ferraris said while I-5 and other highways will likely be affected, he doesn't anticipate there will be much impact within the city itself.
"Not a lot of people will be gathering in an urban area to see the eclipse," Ferraris said. He said that rural areas with big fields will be major destinations for eclipse-chasers because they will have better visibility.
Ferraris said that the department is working with the Marion County Sheriff's Office and the county's emergency management team in preparation for the event, but said nearby highways will be a greater problem than the city's streets.
"I don't think it's going to have a great impact on us," Ferraris said. "Traffic and people are the two impacts we're projecting for the city. Most of the impact will be with the freeway."
Figley said the primary concern is the ability for first responders to navigate the traffic. "When you have more people concentrated in a place you have more need for first responders because stuff happens. People get excited, people have conflicts with other people," she said.
However, Figley said finding alternative routes for first responders for the day of the eclipse isn't too different from the city's disaster planning.
"That is something that's built into a lot of our emergency plans, whether the bridge is not passable because the earthquake took it down or it's impassable because it's in gridlock because Portland people came down to try to see the eclipse," Figley said. "You're still talking about taking people to a hospital and having fire trucks get through."
Figley said the city chose not to hold a major eclipse-viewing event to keep the number of visitors to the city manageable. "We're doing a very low-key event out at Centennial Park, just because that's where the view is going to be the best," Figley said. The city is hosting a barbecue at the park from 8:30 a.m. to noon.
For those planning to travel farther than their front yard for the eclipse, Oregon agencies have been giving advice on how to prepare. Among those is ODOT, which has been urging Oregonians and those visiting from out of state to limit time spent on the road.
"Don't be a luna(r)-tic: Arrive early, stay put and leave late," a June press release from ODOT reads. To prevent congestion, ODOT is recommending travelers avoid the highway during the eclipse and the hours following it.
"Staying off the roads helps make sure emergency service vehicles can get through. Take care of errands well before Aug. 21," reads the press release. "If everyone jumps on the highways all at once right after the eclipse, no one will go very far very fast."
Much of the advice resembles basic disaster preparedness. The Office of the State Fire Marshal recommends that travelers bring extra food and water for each family member and for pets, pack a first aid kit and medications, and bring along a cellphone charger or extra battery.
And, in case one does end up on the road while the eclipse occurs, both ODOT and the fire marshal remind drivers to either pull over or keep their eyes on the road.
Although much of the planning surrounding the eclipse resembles that of a natural disaster, Figley said she's excited for the event.
"We're not talking natural disasters of any kind, we're talking about something that just happens and it has an appeal to us," Figley said. "It's way cool that it's a totally natural, benign event."