THE BUZZ 2: Day of Reckoning

By on August 2, 2017

A local’s introduction to the eclipse.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – On August 21 at 11:42 a.m., the moon will completely cover the sun and all its light for about two minutes, and Jackson residents will see it in all its glory. But while visitors have been planning for years to watch the phenomenon from Jackson Hole, locals are bracing themselves for what will likely be the busiest day, or week, they’ve ever seen.

“It will be crowded,” Rich Ochs, Teton County emergency management coordinator, said.

That’s putting it gently. Grand Teton National Park is predicting its busiest day in history. GTNP spokesperson Denise Germann says on an average day in peak season, the park sees anywhere from 20 to 25 thousand visitors. She expects the day of the eclipse to far surpass that. “We do anticipate it to be the busiest day in the park’s history.”

Traffic will be akin to July Fourth at the base of Snow King when the fireworks end and everyone tries to leave at once, Ochs said… but throughout the valley, for a whole day. Maybe even a few days.

Officials have given up trying to predict just how many visitors will be in town for the eclipse. “I’m not even going to guess,” Ochs said. What’s important, he said, is to be prepared for all scenarios.   

Locals should prepare for the eclipse a little like they would for a short-term apocalypse. Ochs recommends stocking up on food and supplies. “I’m telling people to have three days of food and water on hand,” he said.

Germann agrees. The most important message she wants to communicate to park visitors is preparedness. Bring more than enough food and drink for the entire day.  Fill your gas tank in advance.

On the other hand, local eclipse coordinator Kathryn Brackenridge recommends “emptying the tank,” so to speak, of trash, recycling, and anything else that will accumulate during the eclipse. “It can make all the difference in the world if restaurants and businesses are just as empty as they are full,” Brackenridge said.

Your car likely won’t get you anywhere fast, so if you need it to get to work, give yourself ample time to get there—like, hours. Brackenridge predicts the first surge of traffic will begin as early as 4 a.m. as people make their way into Grand Teton National Park.

All major roads are scheduled to stay open, WYDOT public relations specialist Stephanie Harsha said, but Highway Patrol and WYDOT are restricting overweight truck travel across the state. WYDOT may close any road on a moment’s notice if they need to make room for emergency vehicles.

Roadside parking on Moose-Wilson road and Highway 89 is extra off limits the day of the eclipse, Germann said, to allow easy access for emergency vehicles. Pullouts along 89 are still OK, and the park is designating the left side of Gros Ventre to Kelly as an official viewing spot. Traffic on Gros Ventre will only travel one way, east, toward Kelly.

At Jackson Hole Airport, 15 additional flights will touch down the week of the eclipse, which will bring about 2,000 extra people in addition to regular flight loads. Only passengers or airport employees will be permitted on the airport road the day of eclipse.

The full eclipse lasts about three hours—1.5 hours on each end of totality. If you want to beat the traffic, Ochs said, “What we’re hearing from other communities is that right after totality, people are ready to hit the road. If you’re willing to stick around for a little bit, you’ll miss the traffic.”

More people also means more cell phones, and more people using local towers. This is the first eclipse we’ve had since the advent of social media, Ochs said. People live-streaming and staying current on social media apps like Snapchat and Instagram will likely slow reception down to a crawl, or halt it altogether.

“We want people to record it,” Ochs said, “but we have to be prepared for the fact that service may be spotty.” Ochs says he and other officials have been working with service providers to expand coverage throughout the valley.

Safe viewing

Just how important are those official 3-D-looking eclipse glasses? “If you want to look at the eclipse, they’re absolutely required,” Ochs said.

Regular sunglasses won’t cut it, only certified eclipse shades that meet the international standard (they’ll say ISO 12312-2 on the inside). The real ones are so dark, you can’t see through them in regular daylight. Viewers can take them off during totality—when the moon completely blocks the sun’s rays—but err on the side of caution. Totality will last one minute and 40 seconds, and glasses should be back on before it ends. Plenty of public offices are selling the glasses, or giving them away, or people can buy them online.

For those two minutes of totality, prepare for darkness. Not quite middle-of-the-night darkness, Ochs said, but “you’ll be able to see stars.” If you’re driving at any point during the three-hour eclipse, make sure to turn your headlights on, not just so you can see, but so people can see you. “Everybody’s distracted and looking up,” Ochs said.

Germann stressed that the eclipse is happening in the middle of fire season and as of Tuesday afternoon, fire danger is high. That’s subject to change in the coming weeks, but campers should be vigilant about completely putting out their fires, Germann said.

If something does go wrong, Teton County Sheriff’s Department and Jackson Hole Police Department are working together to ensure they are fully staffed, and are bringing in additional enforcement from out of town. An estimated 180 first responders will be at the ready, including extra officers stationed at a Red Cross base camp at Jackson Hole High School.

Since cell service will be spotty, Brackenridge recommends being clear with dispatch in the event of an emergency. Be prepared to tell them where you are, the nature of the emergency, and whether you need police, fire or medical. Teton County also receives texts to 911.

All of St. John’s Medical Center’s outpatient clinics will be open, but only Urgent Care will be taking walk-ins. St. John’s has also worked with medical partners in the region to ensure they have access to air ambulance transport.

Enjoy the show

The eclipse will be busy at best, chaotic at worst. But it’s not all doom and gloom. On the contrary, Ochs said, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, even, if not especially, for locals. “It can be really easy to look at this as an incident as opposed to an event,” Ochs said. “But it’s an event. A really fun event.”

The last time a total solar eclipse crossed the U.S. was in 1979. It won’t happen again until 2025 when the path of totality will span from Texas to Maine.

Even those working, as many will be on a Monday, need only step outside and look up (with protective eyewear!) to become a part of history.

Sure, it’ll get busy here, Brackenridge said, but tourism is what Jackson does best. It’s the backbone of the economy. “It’s sort of business as usual,” she said. Just a lot more business.

Speaking of businesses, some, including town and county offices, are modifying hours so employees can avoid rush-hour traffic. Service-oriented businesses don’t have the luxury of closing that day, Ochs said, but non-essential services might think twice about sending employees out that day. First, they have to consider whether their employees can even make it to work.

Unlike other spots along the path of totality like Missouri or Kentucky, Jackson Hole isn’t just an exit off the interstate. To get here requires planning, and people have been planning for years. Brackenridge said many of the calls and emails she gets are from international visitors. And Jackson residents have the unique opportunity to welcome them. “My hope is that people really take this opportunity to share the experience with other people … it’s a very powerful work of nature,” Brackenridge said.

Ochs agrees. “There will be incredible, iconic photos with our community in the background, and you’ll be able to say, ‘I was there.’” PJH

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