PORTLAND — The total eclipse that captured Oregon’s awe overhead on Monday spared people on the ground from the doom and gloom originally identified by state officials as potential hazards.
Oregon’s Office of Emergency Management planned for “an influx of about one million visitors,” a projection that set off speculation about fuel shortages, human-caused wildfires and even the potential for a public health outbreak.
Instead, none of those worst-case scenarios came to fruition. There were some substantial post-totality traffic jams, but Monday largely was the nightmare that wasn’t.
“The bottom line is, it went pretty darn well,” said Paula Negele, a spokeswoman for the emergency management office. “People had a great time. People stayed safe. It was a fantastic event.”
State emergency managers received no reports of eclipse-related deaths or injuries, Negele said, although an estimated seven people were airlifted from a large Central Oregon festival for drug overdoses or injuries.
It also appears that no human-caused wildfires started in the path of totality.
Even concerns about clogged highways turned out to be mostly overstated until Monday afternoon, when thousands of motorists heading toward metro Portland created hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Oregon may owe its good fortune to a combination of factors. Negele cited effective messaging by state agencies, conscientious decision-making by travelers and harmonious cooperation by bureaucrats and emergency responders.
But it’s also possible Oregon avoided major problems simply because fewer than 1 million visitors actually showed up.
Negele stood behind her agency’s approximation but also said officials could have done a better job explaining that the 1 million figure was created for planning purposes.
“It was a planning assumption more than, ‘This is what we expect,'” she said Tuesday.
Negele acknowledged that fewer visitors may be why the state suffered fewer problems than projected. In Illinois, some travelers were stuck in up to 15 hours of traffic, according to news reports.
Oregon officials don’t have any solid way of determining how many out-of-state visitors actually came for the eclipse, she said.
“It’s just really hard to say, was it an accurate number or was it a good number,” Negele said of the 1 million figure. “Was it a good planning assumption number? I think it was.”
All the same, Negele said officials may have a “good conversation” about whether there are ways to improve forecasts. Oregon’s next big event is the world track and field championships, which heads to Eugene in 2021.
One place that saw fewer-than-expected eclipse visitors was the Oregon coast. In Depoe Bay over the weekend, workers at a restaurant complained about slow business and oysters that would soon go bad.
A few miles north, in Lincoln City, traffic and business never picked up as expected.
“They just didn’t come, for whatever reason,” said Lori Arce-Torres, executive director of the local chamber of commerce, which represents about 400 businesses.
That said, vendors did just fine and Arce-Torres said she didn’t hear about anyone getting stuck with perishable food or extra merchandise. Still, she questioned the state’s forecast.
“What did they use to come up with those numbers?” she asked.
Another place with low numbers: Oregon forests. And state officials were pleased.
The Oregon Department of Forestry reported just 23 new fires from Aug. 18 to Aug. 23, burning less than 22 acres. Typically, Oregon could have expected 32 fires during that time period.
Officials can’t yet say if each fire was outside the path of totality but confirmed that a majority were. Partial credit should go the state parks division for implementing a burn ban for the eclipse, said Bobbi Doan, a spokeswoman the forestry department. No human-made fires were reported in state parks.
“When you consider the influx of visitors, that’s pretty impressive,” she said of decreased fire reports statewide.
Traffic jams also failed to appear in the days leading up the eclipse. While long lines tied to a major event near Prineville earned gripes from attendees, most highways were flowing through the weekend.
Shiela Morgan, assistant manager at a Chevron near Government Camp on the way to Madras, had stocked up on water and snacks in anticipation of the “traffic apocalypse.”
“It just never happened,” she said Tuesday.
David Thompson, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation, said it wasn’t yet clear why the pre-eclipse traffic predictions appeared overstated. But the running theory is that Oregonians mostly avoided their usual driving.
“It seems like the citizens, the locals, got the message and prepared and stayed off the road,” he said. “As people came in, it didn’t really bump the traffic any more than it usually would be.”
The hours leading up to the eclipse saw cars parking on the side of highways as sanctioned rest areas and parking lots filled up. State officials had asked drivers to avoid pulling over on shoulders for fear of wildfires of blocked emergency vehicles, though there were no reported incidents.
The traffic that hadn’t materialized before the eclipse showed up in the moments after. Thousands of drivers took to the roads as soon as totality had passed.
The resulting bumper-to-bumper traffic clogged routes out of the path of totality for the rest of the afternoon. The one-hour drive from Salem to Portland took three or more. And routes both north and south out of Madras, one of the nation’s prime eclipse viewing spots, saw even more hours of delay.
Gregg and Liz Kennen of Los Angeles stayed in Klamath Falls and drove four hours to Madras to view the eclipse. The return trip took 13 hours.
“Coming in was smooth,” Kennen said. “It’s getting out that was a parking lot.”
The streets in Madras were crammed with tourists trying to leave town. David Becerril of Yakima, Washington, spent four hours trying to get out of the parking lot at Solartown, a private field opened to eclipse campers near the Madras airport.
The plan for getting campers out and onto the highway seemed haphazard, Becerril said, and flaggers directing traffic weren’t in place before the exodus began.
“We were just frustrated that there weren’t police directing traffic,” Becerril said. “There should have been somebody from the beginning doing this. It was all kind of piecemeal, and the people doing it were amateurs who were doing the best they could.”
Still, as of Tuesday, officials were pleased with lack of major traffic problems across the state. “Traffic seems to be flushing out a little faster than we expected,” Thompson, the transportation spokesman, said.
But he cautioned that the end Wednesday of a massive festival near Prineville, called the Symbiosis Gathering, could bring another wave of traffic.
And if bad traffic is the worst thing that happened, state officials are more than willing to declare Oregon’s 2017 eclipse a success.
“We’re here to plan for what could go wrong,” said Negele, the emergency management spokeswoman. “And what we know at this point is, nothing really significant did go wrong.”