Preparedness & Recovery

An Incident Action Plan for Total Darkness

The emergency management challenges of the coming total solar eclipse.

by Terena Bell / July 21, 2017
This March 9, 2016 file photo shows a total solar eclipse in Belitung, Indonesia. Wyoming state tourism officials say the solar eclipse passing over the entire length of Wyoming in August could give the state economy a much needed boost. AP

Kentucky State Police have an incident action plan for the sun. Or rather, what might happen here on earth when the moon moves between us and the sun.

Aug. 21 is the Great American Eclipse: The first total solar eclipse to cross the country from coast to coast since 1918. Two hundred million Americans live within a day’s drive of its path, which stretches from Oregon to South Carolina. Twelve states will experience complete darkness and the rest of the mainland will see a 70 to 99 percent partial eclipse.

With lights out, anything can happen.

“We have to prepare for the worst, and hope for the best,” said Randy Graham, Christian County, Ky., Emergency Management director. Christian County is point of greatest eclipse — the part of the eclipse’s path where NASA says totality will be strongest. It’s where tourism will strongest, too, with 100,000 eclipse fans pouring into a county where only 72,351 people live. “[There’s] typically two to three people per vehicle,” Graham said, “so that’s 30,000 to 50,000 vehicles added to our infrastructure.”

Christian County sits on the Kentucky-Tennessee border; Nashville is an hour away. Music City’s the largest metro in the eclipse path and anticipates 100,000 to 1 million visitors of its own, depending on the source. Kentucky State Police Capt. Brent White said Nashville’s count will add to his state’s tourism as people drive north trying to get as close to the point of greatest eclipse (PGE) as they can.

Kentucky State Police and Tennessee Highway Patrol are partnering to monitor traffic, but there’s no sure way to know how many will cross state lines until Aug. 21. “This is ‘come as you are’ the day of the event, no reservations,” White said. “It would almost be easier if it was like a NASCAR event.”

In 2011, Kentucky Motor Speedway hosted its first race — the Quaker State 400. An estimated 20,000 fans missed the event because they were stuck in traffic, bottlenecking Interstate 71 until 9 p.m.

“Kentucky Speedway may be very applicable to this event,” White said, explaining how what law enforcement learned there will help Kentucky this August. For example, making sure there’s ample parking once cars get where they’re going. Other lessons, though, don’t cross-apply: Whether they’re going in the stadium or tailgating in the parking lot, NASCAR fans are all headed to the same place. Eclipse fans are not.

A Christian tent revival, two miles from PGE expects 6,000 to 10,000 guests. The city’s designated a media and VIP area at PGE; and, nine miles northeast, a production company’s filming a movie during the re-enactment of a 1955 alien sighting. Then there are the two moonshine festivals, a scuba diving party, and the visit from the Pope’s astronomer: Eclipseville.com, a local government website, lists 18 different events. In developing the county’s incident action plan, Graham said emergency management worked with around 150 different groups.

“This would be an easier event to manage,” White said, “if everybody was going to one place ... I think the challenge for any emergency manager or any first responder organization — state police especially or state highway department, what have you — is the fact that this event is going to be so spread out, over multiple venues, multiple counties.” In other words, multiple risks on multiple fronts.

The area where PGE falls is a shallow valley with more farmland than houses. Some of the families who live there have been neighbors for more than a century, so they don’t get a lot of strangers stopping by. They want to be welcoming, but they’re also afraid of break-ins and trespassing. “We’ve done threat assessments of this event,” White said. “The criminal aspect of this many people in this area hardly even registers with us. It’s traffic.”

“We are working to develop a staging area [near PGE],” Graham said, complete with ambulance, first-aid tent, cooling station, fire trucks, rescue personnel, and law enforcement. PGE is a 20-minute drive from the regional hospital down a two-lane, rural road, Kentucky Highway 91. “It’s going see the most traffic congestion we anticipate,” White said, “possibly 15,000 to 20,000 people on that route, and that route usually handles probably about 4,000 to 5,000 people at most.”

Christian County is on the opposite end of the state from Appalachia, so there are no mountains, but western Kentucky is hilly. Sometimes when traffic keeps first responders from moving quickly, they use the emergency access lane. But because of sharp drop-offs, much of Highway 91 doesn’t even have traffic shoulders. Interstate 24, one of two area interstates, does, but culverts in some spots make it dangerous to use them. And certain segments of the Western Kentucky Parkway, an interstate-style controlled-access road, are surrounded by 40-foot-high walls of solid rock.

That’s why the eclipse incident action plan moves beyond the road. Christian County Emergency Management is partnering with Air Ambulance, a subscription-based life-flight business. Since out-of-towners likely won’t be subscribers, Air Ambulance will come anyway. It will just cost more. A neighboring county with its own helicopter is also on call. Kentucky State Police will have aircraft monitoring traffic flow and reporting back to law enforcement. From the ground, Graham said, “If we do get into a situation with gridlock with the traffic then [the staging area will] send in equipment and personnel on ATVs and UTVs.”

Of course, gridlock is what both Christian County Emergency Management and Kentucky State Police hope to avoid, and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) wants to help.

With 20 interstates in the totality band, Martin Knopp, FHWA associate administrator for operations, said, “We don’t really know exactly how many might be out there driving around to get into good position for this, but we know that there will likely be several million.” To keep traffic moving, FHWA has asked that states declare Aug. 21 a no construction day. FHWA’s also changing dynamic message boards nationwide to make sure drivers know the eclipse is coming so they don’t look up, see the sun disappear, then panic.

Knopp also recommends that states barrel off lanes, which is advice Kentucky State Police are taking. “[If] I-24 in Christian County becomes so bogged down with people coming from [Nashville], we can actually set up that interstate like a NASCAR event, where we cone off a lane that is dedicated to exiting traffic only and then we have a lane that is for through traffic only,” White said. “Now it will somewhat bottleneck it, but it’ll make the exiting and the back-up from that exiting traffic a lot safer.”

Should anyone escape that traffic by going down I-24’s emergency access shoulders, Kentucky State Police will kick them off. “We have push bumpers on the front of our cruisers,” White said. “So these troopers, when it gets time to have this event, they’re going to have the autonomy and the authorization to push these vehicles off the shoulder of the roadway if necessary to keep those thoroughfares open.”

Terena Bell is a freelance journalist writing most often on tech, artificial intelligence (AI), ADHD, and the upcoming 2017 total solar eclipse. A Kentucky native, she is based in New York. She tweets @TerenaBell.