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Eclipse safety plans upgraded

IF YOU GO

Wasco County Sheriff Lane Magill expects emergency communications to be overloaded during the weekend before the Aug. 21 eclipse and possibly during and after the event.

“Please don’t call 9-1-1 unless it’s a true emergency,” he said about the need to keep lines open.

He said information about road closures and other public safety data will be distributed via the Wasco County Sheriff’s Facebook page or through a special tip line, 541-506-2792.

Local media outlets will also be notified about changes in road conditions, fires or other situations that area residents need to know about.

Juston Huffman, the county’s emergency management director, requests that residents sign up for the Citizen Alert program at www.co.wasco.or.us. Through that program, people can receive text messages with urgent news.

The number of people expected to descend on Central Oregon for the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse has more than tripled from earlier estimates, and Wasco County Sheriff Lane Magill has upgraded public safety plans accordingly.

Instead of the projected 75,000 people traveling to Jefferson County to be close to Madras, which lies squarely in the Path of Totality, there are likely to be 250,000.

With that size of a crowd on the road, Magill said there is more likelihood of gridlock, traffic accidents and other emergencies.

He said a poll recently conducted by the Oregon Department of Transportation found that 15 percent of 1,457 respondents would be on the road Thursday, 18 percent on Friday, 22 percent on both Saturday and Sunday, and 11 percent on Monday. A smattering of people have already gotten into position at their chosen destination.

Magill has extended extra patrol coverage to the southern sector of the county from Monday to Wednesday based on the ODOT survey, which found that 42 percent of people plan to leave their eclipse site on Monday, 37 percent on Tuesday and 10 percent Wednesday.

“Nobody knows how this thing is going to go so we just need to be ready for anything,” he said. “We’re going to have to be on our toes and able to adjust as things come up.”

Toward that end, Magill has stocked 2,000 bottles of water and 480 bottles of Gatorade — for severely dehydrated people — and all deputies will be carrying a case in their vehicle, with the remainder divided between two mobile command centers.

Magill will oversee activities at the center set up at Cow Canyon, the rest area just south of where Highway 197 and 97 come together. Chief Deputy Chris McNeel supervises operations at the center in the ODOT maintenance yard at the junction of Highway 216 and 26.

Both centers will be up and running by Friday.

Tourists from around the world are expected to flock to Oregon because the moon’s shadow first hits this state as it passes between the Earth and the Sun.

The upcoming eclipse will be the first one visible from the contiguous United States since Feb. 26, 1979. The last time a total eclipse was available from coast to coast was June 18, 1918.

The 2017 total eclipse will also be the first exclusive to the U.S. since before the nation’s founding in 1776.

The small towns of Antelope and Shaniko in south Wasco County lie at the northern fringe of the path, so they are expected to have about 40,000 visitors. Magill said Shaniko is likely to get hit with higher numbers because it is located closer to Highway 97, a major route into Eastern Oregon.

With the population in each community hovering around 50 people, there are not enough resources to deal with such a large influx of people, said Magill.

For that reason, Juston Huffman, director of the county’s Emergency Management department, has arranging for each town to receive a potable water supply from the Oregon National Guard.

He is also trying to find extra portable restrooms, although that task has proven difficult with most facilities already rented out for the event.

Magill expects Maupin to end up with an overflow of people if traffic gets stalled on highways, or people can’t find a place to stay in the actual path.

Three more ambulances are being brought into south county to help meet any medical challenges that arise. Wheeler County is also predicted to have a volume of visitors and the Oregon State Police will be patrolling around John Day and Fossil, also key viewing areas.

Magill said his mother-in-law remembers, during the eclipse of 1979, that cars were lined up on both sides of the road around Criterion, which lies between Maupin and Madras.

“This is a pretty clear area for photography so that is a draw,” he said.

The priority during the next week when there will be so many motorists on the road is to protect lives first, said the sheriff.

He said deputies will be checking in with drivers pulled alongside highways to be sure there are no medical issues or mechanical failures.

Law enforcement officials will also want to make sure that people don’t park atop grassy areas, where a spark from an engine could ignite dry grasses and start a wildfire, a major concern of emergency responders.

Deschutes Rim Clinic in Maupin will be open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Aug. 19, 20 and 21 to treat dehydration and minor injuries – and to stabilize seriously injured patients for transport. A baseball field in upper Maupin will serve as a LifeFlight landing pad if necessary.

In addition, Huffman said the old visitor center in Maupin, 1102 North Highway 97, will be staffed by North Central Public Healths District’s Medical Reserve Corps to provide aid and a cooling station.

Lastly, Magill said area residents should stock up on food and medications to last several days in case supplies cannot be transported into communities because of traffic snarls.

Although his deputies will be primarily working in south county, Magill said people should not think there is no law enforcement coverage in and around The Dalles, or on Interstate 84.

The Dalles Police Chief Pat Ashmore will have officers patrolling the city and the OSP will be out on the freeway.

If it turns out not as many deputies are needed near the path as he has figured, Magill said they will disburse to other locations.

“There are still going to be cops, we are going to be everywhere,” he said.

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