Preparedness & Recovery

Idaho Agencies Prep for Solar Eclipse's Impact on Emergency Resources, Infrastructure

For more than a year, agencies have been planning how to address public health and safety concerns for when visitors flood the area on or before the Aug. 21 event.

by Heather Kennison, The Times-News, Twin Falls, Idaho / June 29, 2017
Shutterstock

(TNS) — TWIN FALLS, Idaho — This August, up to a half-million people could descend on Idaho in order to witness the moon obscure the sun and cast the earth in shadow.

The entire solar eclipse will last just a few hours, while the total eclipse is visible only from a swatch of communities across the United States — including eastern Idaho.

But agencies worry that the sheer traffic coming into the area could impact infrastructure and emergency resources for days. For more than a year, they’ve been planning on how to address public health and safety concerns for when visitors flood the area on or before the Aug. 21 event.

“We know three facts about the eclipse,” said Trish Heath, emergency management coordinator for St. Luke’s Magic Valley Regional Medical Center. “We’re unsure of the number of people coming. We’re unsure of what could happen, and specific health-care needs. But we are sure there’s going to be stupid people doing stupid things.”

Heath was one of a handful of speakers representing businesses and government agencies at an eclipse planning workshop Wednesday in Kimberly. Here’s a recap of some of the topics covered at the session that will likely become relevant to you as the date draws near:

What will the roads be like?

The roads that will likely see bumper-to-bumper traffic from Twin Falls will be U.S. 93 and Idaho 75. Other routes to be impacted include Interstate 84, U.S. 26, U.S. 20 and Idaho 21. Idaho Transportation Department expects congestion to primarily affect Idaho 75 between Stanley and the Timmerman Junction.

Traffic is more likely to affect the area from the Friday before to the Tuesday after the solar eclipse. For this reason, ITD is aiming to pause or delay road work on the affected routes.

“We will be suspending most construction projects if they are on the path of totality and in the main routes,” spokesman Nathan Jerke said.

That being said, contractors may opt to continue work, though Jerke suspected many would not.

“We have so many projects on I-84, it’s scary,” he said. “We didn’t have this on our radar two years ago.”

A bridge reconstruction on Idaho 75 will narrow the road to one lane in each direction, but ITD hopes to finish enough of the project to open more lanes. The Stanton Crossing bridge on U.S. 20 will cause delays, with one alternative lane of traffic.

Electronic message boards will alert drivers of safety issues, and extra state troopers will patrol the routes.

Jerke did not anticipate any major lane changes except if construction occurs or if there are major traffic problems.

How can I know what’s ahead before I set out?

ITD has released a free mobile app that shows travel times on I-15 between Utah and Montana, U.S. 91 from Chubbuck to Idaho Falls, and U.S. 20 from Idaho Falls to West Yellowstone. The department will estimate traffic counts using a baseline figure and real-time data collection that tracks Bluetooth devices crossing those paths.

The key is to leave early and not get in a hurry, Jerke said.

“You’re not going to save a lot of time by passing two to three cars,” he said.

What if I have an emergency on the road?

In eastern Idaho, coordinators are set up to borrow golf carts and mules to more quickly get to patients if an emergency occurs on the road, Idaho Falls Fire Chief Dave Hanneman said.

ITD plans to have maintenance staff on standby, and two-person response teams along Idaho 75 will have water, gasoline, crash and “flagger ahead” signs, and first-aid and CPR equipment.

Portable toilets will be set up at strategic locations, Jerke said.

How are they preparing for medical emergencies?

St. Luke’s hospitals in Wood River and McCall will likely be the most affected, Heath said. But they aren’t planning for the unexpected.

“Every single day there is the what-if’s,” she said. “What we’re planning for is the usual, just more of it.”

The hospitals will ensure there are plenty of supplies in advance of the eclipse to take care of common emergencies seen in August — such as heart attacks and snake bites.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is examining having storage facilities for anti-venom, Public Health Emergency Planner Chris Burgess said, because “rattlesnakes are very friendly and like to give you a kiss when you get close to them.”

Emergency aircraft will all be fully staffed three days prior and two days after the event, he said.

Each county will have developed its own action plan regarding sharing resources, Hanneman said.

What about visibility?

Although Idaho has the highest chance of having clear skies for the eclipse, there’s always a possibility of bad weather or smoke from fires.

The National Weather Service in Pocatello will post information at weather.gov/pocatello, and plans to increase live briefings in the days leading up to the eclipse, spokesman Vernon Preston said.

Agencies would like to prevent human-caused wildfires as much as possible and are asking for a burn ban over the weekend to minimize risk, Hanneman said.

What about cellphone usage?

As thousands of people use data on their cellphones, communication could become an issue, Hanneman said — especially if many begin live-streaming the event. Plans are in the works to establish other forms of communication for emergency personnel.

“We’re not telling everyone it’s all going to be good,” Hanneman said. “We’re trying to make it less bad.”

What’s the big deal, anyway?

An eclipse occurs any time a celestial body hides another celestial body, said Chris Anderson, observatory coordinator at Faulkner Planetarium. On average, there are 2.4 lunar eclipses and 2.38 solar eclipses per year.

Only one in four solar eclipses — when the moon passes over the face of the sun — are total eclipses.

“Only those in the path of totality will see the sun completely blocked out,” Anderson said.

For those couple of minutes of totality, viewers may remove their eye protection. For everyone else, protective eyewear must be kept on at all times for looking directly at the sun. Otherwise, “you can look for a long time without feeling discomfort, and be doing a lot of damage.”

The only total solar eclipses visible in the U.S. over the past 40 years were in 1979 (in the northwest) and 1991 (Hawaii only). The next total solar eclipse visible in Idaho won’t happen until 2169.

“This is expected to be the most witnessed total solar eclipse in history,” Anderson said. “… It’s really not good enough to stay here (in Twin Falls) and see the eclipse.”

©2017 The Times-News (Twin Falls, Idaho) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC