Law enforcement officials are busy looking for ways to keep traffic flowing and people safe amid predictions that next month’s solar eclipse may temporarily double the Columbia area’s population.
Their plans, which are still evolving, include:
▪ Lining local interstates on the day of the eclipse — Aug. 21 — with state troopers, State Transport Police, local police and deputies. The focus will be on I-26 because the eclipse’s path is predicted to follow the highway from the Upstate to the Lowcountry, state Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Sherri Iacobelli said. The number of officers that will be assigned to the job is still being decided.
▪ Assigning extra state road assistance crews to help disabled motorists and reduce bottlenecks from accidents and breakdowns.
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▪ Stationing city of Columbia crews at major intersections to alter traffic lights if needed, city public works director Robert Anderson said. There are no plans so far to reverse lanes or close streets.
▪ Positioning Lexington County ambulances and fire trucks so they can respond quicker to calls for help in the expected congestion, county emergency management director Bo Davenport said.
▪ Assigning all 360 Columbia officers as well as reserves and cadets to be on duty on Aug. 21. They will be stationed along major roads to deal with problems. “It’s pretty much all hands on deck,” deputy city police chief Melron Kelly said.
Despite those efforts, officials worry that congestion on area roads may become Malfunction Junction magnified. An influx of visitors from near and far is expected because of forecasts that Columbia will a total eclipse lasting about 2 minutes and 30 seconds, one of the longest periods on the East Coast.
“It promises to be like 10 Clemson-Carolina (football) games on the same day at the same time,” Columbia City Councilman Howard Duvall said. Some have estimated that 90,000 fans or more gather in and around Williams-Brice Stadium every other November for the Palmetto State’s biggest college rivarly game.
“Expect nearly everything to be above capacity for nearly a week,” said Kim Stenson, director of the South Carolina Emergency Management Division. Stenson’s agency is coordinating the state’s preparations for managing the expected influx of tourists.
Law enforcement and transportation officials along with state emergency management experts have been preparing for the event since November.
The planning relies on experience with football traffic, hurricane evacuations, concerts and even the 1987 visit by Pope John Paul II. Officials also checked with other communities in the path of the eclipse for traffic management ideas.
The hassles on the roads could start as soon as Friday, Aug. 18, when out-of-towners begin arriving for a weekend featuring more than 100 events across the Midlands, officials said.
Traffic is expected to intensify three days later as residents within a half-day drive of the Midlands visit, officials said. The most challenging time may be the afternoon of Aug. 21 when crowds at viewing events begin leaving just as the afternoon rush hour for commuters begins, officials said.
“Motorists should expect traffic congestion and plan accordingly, especially if they have a work commute,” Iacobelli said. “It is reasonable to assume that usual commutes will take longer.”
But it could have been worse: Most area public schools have cancelled classes on eclipse day, eliminating school traffic. But state offices will remain open.
Congestion also is likely Aug. 22 when many eclipse tourists leave just as USC students and their families travel to Columbia to begin moving into dorms, which open that day for the fall semester.
While some deputies in Lexington and Richland counties will be on the road, many will be patrolling hotels and businesses to deter theft. They also will provide security at gatherings. “We’ll be trying to prevent things from happening,” Richland County chief deputy Chris Cowan said.
Troopers and road assistance crews will not carry water, snacks and protective eyewear for visitors, said Iacobelli of the state Department of Public Safety.
State officials are urging motorists to fill up their fuel tanks before the weekend starts as a precaution.
So far, there’s been no request from organizations hosting events for state help with necessities such as bottled water and portable toilets, said Stenson of the state emergency management office, said.
Kelly, the city of Columbia assistant police chief, has three words of advice for local residents and visitors.
“Pack your patience.”
Tim Flach: 803-771-8483
ABOUT THE ECLIPSE:
When is it? Aug. 21
When will the total eclipse start? 2:41 p.m. in the Midlands
How long will the total eclipse last? It varies, even across the Midlands. In downtown Columbia, the total eclipse is expected to last about 2 minutes and 30 seconds.
For more information: totaleclipsecolumbiasc.com
COPING WITH ECLIPSE TRAFFIC
▪ Be patient
▪ Fill up your car with gas before the weekend starts
▪ Don’t stop on the interstate to watch the eclipse. Multiple electronic sign boards will warn motorists to keep moving.
▪ Pack extra water and food
▪ Carry a mobile phone charger
▪ Be prepared for the mobile phone system to become overloaded