Eclipse watchers expected to overload Salem public safety agencies, roads

Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to swarm the Salem area for the Great American Eclipse next month, overloading highways, city streets and bridges and endangering the capabilities of police, fire and medical services to respond to emergencies, public safety officials predict.

Visitors and residents should expect "LA-style gridlock" during and in the days leading up to the eclipse, presenting the dangerous possibility of a major emergency occurring, but no way to quickly respond.

"The worst case scenario is that we just can't get anywhere," said Marion County Fire District No. 1 Chief Terry Riley. "I can't see that not happening."

But it's also possible that hazardous scenarios never materialize despite up to half a million people funneling into the region, city, county and state officials said. The unknowns have concerned them as much as anything during the year-long planning process.

"It could bring a lot of challenges, but it could be Y2K all over again," said Dean Bender, Polk County emergency manager.

More: Eclipse to cause 'biggest traffic event in Oregon history'

Fire elsewhere could strain Salem

One nightmare scenario that officials have prepared for is a wildfire igniting in Eastern or Central Oregon, forcing the evacuation of thousands of people -- many more than on a typical summer weekend. Campers will flood private lands and public areas that rarely see significant traffic, and if roads are congested or blocked it could take much longer for emergency personnel to arrive and coordinate an evacuation.

"The more people we get up there recreating and camping the chances (of a fire) go up," Marion County Sheriff's Office spokesman Jeff Stutrud said. "So, not only is the risk going to be high, as normal, you're going to have 10 times as many people."

For the Salem area, a fire in the east or smoky skies could send people west in search of a clear view of the eclipse. If, at the same time, there's a storm to the west blocking the sky, up to half a million people could find their way into Marion and Polk counties.

"At the top end, it's more than what our infrastructure can probably manage," said Kenny Larson, communications and community engagement manager for the City of Salem.

Every qualified public safety employee in the area will be on call from at least Aug. 17 to 21. Some are being asked to delay vacations. Police cars, ambulances and incident response vehicles from the Oregon Department of Transportation will be strategically placed around the city and counties to increase the likelihood someone will be able to respond to an emergency, regardless of traffic. 

EMS could face congestion

Most concerns stem from traffic because it can directly lead to ineffective or missing emergency services, even if first responders can react to a call.

Marion County Emergency Manager Ed Flick said that people should expect that law enforcement won't be able to respond quickly, and that it's "likely" there will be situations where ambulances won't be available.

"Fire, police and EMS are going to be stretched very thin," said Wayne McFarlin, emergency preparedness administrator for Salem Health. "We need to anticipate what (they) can do, and what they can't."

McFarlin's hospital is preparing for increased traffic of its own.

Potentially at least doubling the size of Salem with tourists, an already busy Salem Health emergency department is anticipating more visits for common injuries and sicknesses, but also a blend of patients with eclipse-specific ailments.

Parties mean treating more alcohol and drug incidents; bottle-necked traffic could cause accidents or fights; hot August temperatures can lead to heat exhaustion, dehydration and more. And if people look at the eclipse without proper eye protection, eye injuries could be commonplace.

Working from revised mass casualty emergency plans, McFarlin said they have a handful of contingencies they can switch to based on the unfolding situation. They will be shifting resources and staff to the emergency department from other, less busy areas, while also limiting elective surgeries during the busiest five days.

The hospital also has several large tents they can deploy in a variety of ways depending on need, trying to maintain flexibility in what remains a situation rife with unknowns.

Contingencies and flexibility

Flexibility is also what ODOT is calling on the public to maintain during the eclipse. To help battle congestion, ODOT spokesman Lou Torres suggests visitors plan out different routes to their locations, since highways and major thoroughfares are going to be slow.

Torres specifically identified as trouble areas Highway 18 from Grand Ronde to Lincoln City, the bridges connecting Salem to West Salem, and Highway 22 toward Gates, Detroit and Madras.

Using alternative routes could also help clear the way for emergency services. To that end, ODOT is also hoping to keep the left shoulder on Interstate 5 open at all times, specifically for first responders.

"The biggest thing is that we really don't know how many people," Torres said. "But it's not hard to predict that we're going to have a lot of congestion."

Despite the planning and worry, eclipse madness could fizzle quickly in the Salem area. If the morning of Aug. 21 is cloudy, officials expect an exodus.

That's the problem preparing for the eclipse, said Bender, the Polk County emergency manager. For a storm or a well-understood natural disaster, it's easier to predict what the public will need and the complications public safety agencies could face. With an eclipse, the variables are much greater.

But you still have to prepare for the worst, he said, because, "it won't take very long for our resources to be topped out."

Contact the reporter at cradnovich@statesmanjournal.com or 503-399-6864, or follow him on Twitter at @CDRadnovich.

© 2017 KGW-TV


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