Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Concern mounts over potential eclipse crowd

While a couple of local organizations are rolling out the welcome mat and inviting the world to Crittenden County on the third Monday in August, others are huddling up, trying to figure out what to do if everyone shows up.

Crittenden County Chamber of Commerce and Crittenden County Lions Club are among those making plans and sending out invitations for people to visit Marion to view or celebrate the first solar eclipse in the continental United States in the last 38 years.

The Lions, who own the fairgrounds, are advertising on the internet that they will rent eclipse enthusiasts a small space to set up a telescope or self-contained camper. There is no power, water or sewer available for campers at the fairgrounds. 

Chamber members are promoting a weekend event just ahead of the eclipse.

“We will be having a festival at our park on Saturday, Aug. 19 centered around the solar eclipse,” said Angel Henry, vice president of the Chamber. “Several of us attended a regional meeting (last week) and left with tons of valuable information to make our festival a success. We plan to have live music, contests and will end the day with an outdoor viewing of the movie ‘ET’.”

A backdrop to all the planning for these opportunities is a bit of concern from Crittenden County Emergency Management and other groups responsible for safety, transportation and other human needs. There are some who think a mass influx of thousands would create major traffic jams, consume all available fuel, overload cellular networks and create a significant, perhaps even crippling, stress on other limited resources. 

Some schools in the area have already announced they will be closed on the day of the eclipse, Aug. 21, but Crittenden County is currently planning to stay on a normal course. School Transportation and Safety Director Al Starnes said the district has purchased 1,300 pairs of glasses for students to safely view the eclipse.

“We think this is a great opportunity for our students. We have activities planned in order to make it educational.

“We are listening and hearing what is being said, but right now we feel like our best option is to not close school,” Starnes said. 

Keith Todd, spokesperson for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, said state transportation officials are anticipating a potential swamping of major roads and highways.

“We’re looking at this like they handle coastal evacuations during hurricanes,” Todd said. “We handled major events in Kentucky like the Equestrian Games, Kentucky Derby and auto races, so we have some expertise.”

Todd said there is potential for gas stations running out of fuel and bottled water being scarce because the event will be in August when temperatures in Kentucky can reach triple digits. 

“We are looking at billboards that will tell people they can’t stop on the sides of the highways,” he said.

If there is a major overload on the infrastructure and resources, Crittenden County Emergency Management Director David Travis said Crittenden County will be on its own. He said other outside resources, such as assistance from the National Guard or other government entities, will not be immediately available.

“They are telling us we will be on our own for the first 72 hours,” he said. “If we get 2,500 to 3,000 people in the community, we would be swamped.”

Of course, no one knows yet when the guests will start showing up.

Fred Brown, another emergency management official for the county, said many jurisdictions are already trying to declare a state of emergency in order to trigger funding and response mechanism. 

“Our No. 1 concern in this county is road blockage,” Brown said. “We have two-lane roads, and if drivers pull off the side to watch this, it could choke traffic and create accidents. If people get stuck here, we have nowhere to put them.”

Right now, it’s too difficult to predict what can be expected when the skies go dark, but one thing is for sure, local leaders are starting to worry a bit and to plan for the worst.