Meredith Rutland Bauer is a San Francisco Bay Area freelance reporter covering the environment, science, and technology. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Quartz, VICE, TheStreet, and the Tampa Bay Times.
Visitors to some small cities are expected to equal half of entire state populations.
Millions of people are expected to travel to see the total solar eclipse later this month, a rare astronomical happening that will be visible from a mere 70-mile-wide path from Oregon to South Carolina. When the sky goes dark midday and the moon completely overlaps with the sun, twelve states along the path of totality are expected to be inundated with visitors. South Carolina, for example, with a population of 4.9 million residents, is expected to get 1 to 2 million visitors.
Small cities are bearing the brunt of preparing for this influx, and city officials and logistics experts say preparation will feel similar to, or even more intense than, major events like the World Series.
“We have a playbook that we follow for big events,” said Chris Hernandez, a spokesman for Kansas City, Missouri. “Just a few years ago, we won the World Series [and had] about 800,000 people crowded into downtown for one day.”
Here are some of the biggest contingencies cities and visitors should be prepared for.
Traffic could feel like an evacuation, stalling emergency responders and deliveries
Gridlocks are expected across the U.S. for several days before and after the eclipse.
“It is similar to what would happen for an evacuation for a hurricane,” said Howard Duvall, councilman for Columbia, South Carolina.
To help the public grasp the size of these traffic jams, Duvall said it’s easier, and less frightening to compare the impact to a football game, even if no football game aside from the Super Bowl can really get close to the scale of traffic. “This is going to be like having 10 Carolina-Clemson football games on the same day,” Duvall said.
Joleen Kelley, spokeswoman for Marion County, Oregon, said the more dispersed traffic will require officials to reroute travels away from small two-lane roads.
“A lot of times when there is a big event, [traffic is] usually central to an area, and this time with the eclipse it will cover the state,” she said. “It will go border to border in Oregon.”
All that traffic is likely to trap EMS, fire, and police in its grasps. Larsen said the city plans to position emergency responders across the city ahead of traffic, for example on both sides of a critical bridge.
Some jurisdictions are pulling in additional personnel from other counties and states.
Regular deliveries might also get stuck in transit, so grocery stores, gas stations and even hospitals have to think about supply chain concerns in the weeks before eclipse travelers get on the road.
Hospitals have begun ordering extra medicine for their patients for that week, plus some supplies to treat an influx of minor injuries that go hand-in-hand with large crowds, like heat stroke.
Gas stations have been warned to keep up with supply that week, Kelley said. “We certainly don’t want a run on gas,” she said.
Risk will be high for pedestrian crashes and even parking garage collapses
Celestial events prompt people to wander out into city roads with their heads pointed skyward, and drivers to pull over to get a better view. But both are a recipe for fatal accidents, especially in large numbers.
Merritt McNeely, director of marketing for the South Carolina State Museum, who is assisting with city-wide logistical preparation, advised city officials to close roads as needed, and to post billboard alerts that highway drivers should not stop during the eclipse.
Some visitors may be inclined to stand on top of parking garages to get the best view, said Duvall, who has a background in hardware supply management. But due to the weight distribution of people versus cars, he cautioned that in a particularly extreme scenario, hundreds of people standing on a parking garage could cause a collapse.
Prepare to use old-school means of communication
Cell phone service and smartphone internet are expected to be unavailable inside the path of totality due to the large concentration of people. So visitors should go old-school and print out directions and reservations for hotels and campsites.
City officials will need to know how to access emergency channels. Cell phone companies are beefing up their network capacity for emergency responders, but not increasing capacity for commercial use, according to a Verizon spokesperson.
Some responders will turn to more outdated technology. Brad Kieserman, Vice President for Disaster Operations and Logistics for the American Red Cross, said the Red Cross will rely on ham radio to communicate with their staff and volunteers. Coleen Niemann of Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center said her hospital will use landlines to contact on-call doctors and medical staff.
There will be terrified calls to 911
Expect that small number of residents who just won’t know why the sun is darkening. Duvall said Columbia’s 911 operators will be prepared to reassure unaware residents—and perhaps impart some science education.
“No matter how much publicity we have, some people will not know about it,” he said, “and it’s going to be a frightening thing to someone who isn’t prepared to understand what is happening.”