JEFFERSON CITY • A total solar eclipse over a swath of Missouri and Illinois in August will last a maximum of just two minutes and forty seconds, but planning by state officials for the phenomena has been underway for months.
From coordinating public safety concerns for motorists to making sure there are adequate medical facilities for potential visitors, emergency management officials have been deciding on how to best handle what is expected to be an influx of eclipse-viewers to Missouri’s midsection and Illinois’ southern counties.
For the Missouri Department of Transportation, the concern is not about people descending on the Show-Me state to view the rare alignment of the sun and moon, it will be the aftermath, when people are heading back home.
“We’re kind of comparing it to if Florida is evacuating for a hurricane,” said MoDOT spokesman Matt Hiebert.
The Aug. 21 eclipse has become a focal point for planners because of its rarity. It is the first such eclipse in the continental United States since 1979. That Monday, the skies will begin to darken in late morning when the moon begins to obscure the sun. The total eclipse is expected to occur about 1 p.m.
Although the effects of the eclipse will be visible across the U.S., Missouri and Illinois are in a path that will be under a total eclipse for the first time since the 1400s. Missouri officials are making plans for as many as one million people to seek a spot under the 70-mile-wide swath running from St. Joseph in the west to Cape Girardeau in the east. In Illinois, the epicenter is in the Carbondale area.
The Missouri State Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Public Safety, MoDOT and the Highway Patrol are spearheading planning for the event. The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services also is involved in what is being treated as a “potential large-scale event.”
The first meeting of the various agencies in Missouri was in early March and smaller regional meetings have been underway since then. The frequency of the meetings is expected to increase in the coming weeks.
“That will be ramped up more and more as we get closer to the date,” said Mike O’Connell, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety.
Similar planning has been underway in Illinois, said Patti Thompson, spokeswoman for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.
She said the focal point is on 18 counties south of Interstate 70. In Carbondale, Southern Illinois University is poised to host viewers at the football stadium and house people unable to find hotels or campsites in an empty dormitory.
“We do know there is going to be an influx of people into that part of the state,” Thompson said.
Among the tasks for planners has been to identify which medical facilities can handle a potential surge in patients due to high temperatures or other factors. The agency also is helping to coordinate first aid stations and cooling centers.
“There’s been a lot of planning that’s gone into it and it will continue right on up to the event,” Thompson said.
In Missouri, much of the focus has been on potential traffic jams, with MoDOT considering whether to put road construction projects on hold that weekend like the agency does on busy holidays. Planners also are staying in contact with federal officials, including the National Weather Service.
“Obviously weather and heat at that time of year is a consideration,” O’Connell said.
While some have been skeptical about the potential number of visitors, Hiebert said that based on hotel reservations, campgrounds and even portable toilet rentals, there is reason to believe there could be 1 million people within the path of the eclipse.
In addition to potential traffic headaches, MoDOT is undertaking a social media campaign to remind people to be careful of pedestrians when the event is underway. The agency also plans to remind drivers not to wear the opaque eclipse-viewing glasses while driving. They also plan to warn people that it is dangerous to pull over on the side of the road to view the eclipse.