600,000 tourists in the Midlands on one day? 5 ways the solar eclipse may affect you

On Aug. 21, most Midlands residents will marvel as the moon blocks the sun for just over 2.5 minutes.

But if predictions prove true, we won’t be the only ones watching the total eclipse locally. Some officials are projecting that 600,000 tourists will descend on the Midlands that Monday or the weekend before. Such an influx would likely clog roads, stress emergency services and create other challenges.

Here’s a look at five ways the eclipse might affect local residents and our guests.

Oh, the traffic

When the University of South Carolina plays a home football game, more than 80,000 fans fill Williams-Brice Stadium, creating traffic difficulties in Columbia.

But many of those are students and local residents. Consider that nearly eight times that number are projected to travel here for the eclipse.

“There is definitely going to be a lot of congestion,” says Lt. R. Kelley Hughes with the state Highway Patrol communications office. “Drivers are going to need to have patience the whole weekend.”

Expect congested travel on interstates and major highways around Columbia in the days surrounding the solar eclipse. Last year, the average daily number of drivers on I-26 between St. Andrews Road and I-20 – Malfunction Junction – was 141,400. While there are no official projections for how 600,000 visitors will impact that number, officials are preparing for traffic issues.

The main thing officials want to prevent is drivers stopping on the interstates during the eclipse itself to watch, said Rob Perry, state traffic management engineer for the S.C. Department of Transportation. He said message boards will be used to relay that message. “Our focus is making sure people do not stop on the roads to watch this.”

The Highway Patrol will encourage motorists to plan ahead and designate a safe and legal place to park during the eclipse. For a list of scheduled events to watch the eclipse, visit totaleclipsecolumbiasc.com.

While folks’ arrival in Columbia may be spread out over several days, expect heavy traffic on local interstates the night and day after the eclipse as visitors leave.

During the eclipse, be aware that some drivers may be surprised and may become distracted and disoriented.

Troopers plan to monitor and assist with potential traffic issues and will have additional officers in high visibility patrols along interstate highways.

Hello, 911: Where’s the sun?

As impossible as it may seem, some people won’t know an eclipse is happening Aug. 21.

When the skies darken, they’ll be terrified. Terrified people call 911.

“It will be all hands on deck,” says Jacquelyn Richburg, deputy director of Columbia-Richland 911 communications. “Our staff is aware of what is happening and all available staff, every position will be filled.”

The city of Columbia will utilize the emergency notification system, like the alerts that go out for severe weather, about the eclipse to reach as many people as possible.

Meanwhile, 911 operators will be prepared to explain what is happening to those who don’t know, and to handle the extra emergency calls they’re expecting because of the extra visitors.

“Not only during the time (of the eclipse) but the entire weekend leading up to it,” Richburg says. “It’s been well planned, well thought out.”

Preparing for more patients

When 600,000 guests are expected, emergency services officials have a lot to consider.

“You have to be prepared for the worst and hope for the best,” Irmo Fire Chief Mike Sonefeld says.

Fire departments from Columbia, Richland and Lexington counties say they are working together to provide services during the eclipse weekend.

Palmetto Health will be finalizing plans during the next few weeks, says Dr. Steve Shelton, medical director for emergency preparedness. “Doubling our population, we realize there may be an increase in patient volume,” Shelton says.

Besides a potential increase in patients, the hospital also is planning for how to get scheduled employees to its hospitals if traffic congestion becomes a problem.

No school on Aug. 21

Ordinarily, South Carolina schools would be allowed to open Aug. 21 this year. But except for the Cayce-West Columbia system, public school districts in Richland and Lexington counties will open a day or two later.

Lexington 2, in Cayce and West Columbia, is taking advantage of a one-year exception to state law. In other years, South Carolina public schools can’t open before the third Monday in August, which this year is eclipse day.

But because of the eclipse, the Legislature allowed schools to open this year as early as Aug. 17, which is when Cayce-West Columbia schools will open.

If you have a child in that school system, don’t worry. Classes are canceled on eclipse day.

USC dorms open later

Dormitories at the University of South Carolina won’t open for students to settle in until Aug. 22, two days before classes start. That helps avert competition for hotel rooms between eclipse tourists and USC students, parents and friends. But it shortens the period for freshmen to get acquainted with campus before classes start.

Also . . .

▪ If you’re a fan of the USC Gamecocks or a local high school football team, they won’t be practicing in the dark Aug. 21. Rather, they won’t be practicing in the dark in the middle of the day. Because public schools will be out that day, most high school coaches will have practices in the morning to avoid both the eclipse and Columbia’s oppressive August heat. The Gamecock football team is scheduled to practice in the evening that day.

▪ The Columbia Fireflies have an afternoon game Aug. 21 at Spirit Communications Park. The game starts at 1:05 p.m., but plans call for the game to be suspended as the total eclipse nears. The stadium lights will remain off, and the game will resume after the sun once again shines.

Earlier that day, the stadium will open at 10 a.m. for a STEM Festival, with interactive booths set up to teach kids about Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

Teddy Kulmala and Clif LeBlanc contributed.

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