Bracing for totality
Monday, Aug. 21, 2017. That date will forever be remembered as the day that the sun disappeared and Oregon stood still. That will be the case on Interstate 5, at least, according to Oregon Department of Transportation officials.
With projections of up to 1 million people traveling toward Oregon and the path of totality — the areas in which the sun will completely be blocked by the moon causing a true solar eclipse — the long-awaited eclipse is expected to cause massive roadblocks on I-5 South and other major highways in Oregon, including nearby I-205.
While the path of totality just narrowly misses Wilsonville — the projected path reaches as far north as Woodburn — ODOT's Don Hamilton says those delays will almost certainly reach as far north as Wilsonville. Traffic delays could start as early as Friday, culminating around 10:15 a.m. the morning of Aug. 21, when the moon is expected to finally pass in front of the sun.
"We could see gridlock across major sections of the state, and we're hearing that many people will be coming from Washington early Monday morning," Hamilton says. "That's going to create tremendous traffic. That area of I-5 around Wilsonville might be ground zero for an enormous area of backlog. I hope we're wrong, and we're trying to prepare for the worst and hope for the best, but we need to make sure that the public is aware that this could create a huge backlog and congestion, the likes of which we've never seen in Oregon."
ODOT plans to station emergency vehicles and personnel at weigh stations and rest stops all along I-5 in the case that I-5 south becomes a gridlocked parking lot of cars. With high temperatures the past few weeks ODOT is also worried about the increased potential for forest fires — a crisis that would be escalated if emergency vehicles aren't able to drive anywhere.
"The biggest concern we have with this congestion is that we won't be able to get emergency services to where they're needed. That could be a big deal if someone is in trouble or if there's a fire or medical event," Hamilton says.
The City of Wilsonville, meanwhile, is doing what it can to prepare for the eclipse as well. According to the Chamber of Commerce, hotels in Wilsonville are booked solid as people from throughout the country have planned their journey toward the path of totality. The City has coordinated with local agencies like ODOT and Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue, and is also preparing for overflow traffic in the event that drivers head for Wilsonville exits if I-5 is gridlocked.
Wilsonville police will be stationed throughout the City in cases of emergency, and signage will be put up at local parks prohibiting eclipse-seekers from camping out in the days preceding Aug. 21.
"We don't allow camping in our parks," City Manager Bryan Cosgrove said at the Aug. 7 City Council meeting. "We'll have whatever officers are on duty and they will be visiting our parks. We'll come up with signage to leave their tents in their cars. We've also talked with Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue and it's my understanding that they're going to strategically place equipment and personnel all over in the event that they can't get across the river."
"Part of the plan for the eclipse is to recognize that there are going to be people with old atlases or whatever they're using, who think that Boones Ferry will get them over the river," added Public Works Director Delora Kerber. "We'll be placing a message sign that says 'local traffic, dead end' near where the old Albertsons is. We're making sure that all the staff on hand, parks staff, will be out and about and bring things to the police's attention."
While local hotels saw a major spike in business, Wilsonville Chamber of Commerce CEO Kevin O'Malley says local businesses are tentatively planning for business as usual, but don't know what to
"Most businesses I've talked to aren't thinking it's going to affect them too much," O'Malley says. "Larger businesses have said they're encouraging some employees to stay home and avoid the roads but other than that things should remain fairly normal."
While Hamilton estimates I-5 South could become congested as early as Friday, Aug. 18, he says traffic leaving the path of totality could be much worse. ODOT had documented more than 150 planned eclipse events as of Aug. 1 — a record number for the state for one day. Hamilton says ODOT has even heard of planned hot air balloon events, skydiving parties and whitewater trips specifically designed to view the once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. They're all things that
will ultimately contribute to traffic.
"It's going to be the worst after the eclipse when everyone leaves the area of totality at the same time," Hamilton says. "People will head towards the path of totality over the course of three or four days, but they'll likely all leave at the same time. So we're telling people to expect things to be crowded. It might be a good day to work at home if you can, find alternate ways to work, or stay off roads altogether."