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Bring on the eclipse: Local law enforcement, EMS, fire departments ready for anticipated one million tourists

This weekend, Columbia may host over seven times its normal population, as a total solar eclipse passes over what NASA has deemed one of its prime viewing spots.

During the afternoon of Monday, Aug. 21, the moon will obscure the sun as the track of this total solar eclipse passes from Oregon to the coast of South Carolina.  After National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced in late 2016 that Columbia, SC, would be one of the nation’s best cities to view the eclipse, local businesses and organizations began planning a unique array of over 120 special events to capitalize on this unique opportunity, including music festivals, tailgate viewing parties, lectures, live performances, major dining and retail sales, and camping events.  In early 2017, NASA announced that Columbia should expect one million tourists visiting during the eclipse weekend—a number that is more than seven times the city’s population.

With events stretching across Lake Murray and other Midlands areas, the influx of tourists is not limited to just the city of Columbia.  While local businesses have anticipated and prepared for the “total eclipse weekend” publicly for months, multiple public service agencies also have been quietly readying for the surge of tourists, including emergency medical services, law enforcement, fire departments, and other first responders.

With university classes resuming the same week as the eclipse, there will also be an increase in traffic and visitors to the region that is unrelated to the eclipse.  And while that may mean some college students and their families arrive early to enjoy eclipse-themed events, it also presents some additional concerns for emergency response staff.  With a large amount of people suddenly concentrated in one region, some local departments are concerned about a variety of public health and public safety matters, including sanitation, terroristic threats, overcrowding, crime, and drug and alcohol abuse.

For major cities such as Columbia, Charleston, and Greenville, the South Carolina Department of Public Safety expects traffic congestion not only on the day of the eclipse, but the three days preceding it.  “SCDPS will have additional troopers and STP officers on hand to assist in high visibility patrols along interstate highways,” said Lieutenant R. Kelley Hughes of South Carolina Highway Patrol.  

Smaller cities neighboring Columbia are also taking precautions to prepare for tourists and special events.  According to West Columbia’s public information officer, Anna Huffman, the city is preparing not only for traffic and road safety problems, but also access to public resources, public health concerns, and crime.  “We are increasing staffing on all shifts at the police department and fire department,” said Huffman.  

Lexington Police Department has also increased the staffing of officers for the weekend and the day of the eclipse, particularly with their patrol division and near special events.  While their biggest concern is traffic and road safety, LPD is taking precautions against  a variety of problems that could be caused by the sudden addition of one million people.  “An increase in crime is not anticipated during the eclipse event, but every preparation is being made if it does occur, with additional officers working throughout the weekend and on Monday,” said Corporal Cameron Mortenson.  “Officers…will be actively patrolling neighborhoods, business districts, and intersections where congestion is typically known to occur.”

Outside Richland and Lexington counties, the preparation continues across the Midlands region.  In Kershaw County, two additional ambulances and an additional special purpose vehicle will be staffed near large events.  According to James D. Edge, a paramedic and supervisor with Kershaw County EMS, his department is preparing for an increase in road rage incidents, overheated vehicles, overindulgence in alcohol at eclipse-themed events, overcrowding, and public sanitation concerns.  “We are expecting very high volume traffic on our highways and interstates, which increases the risk of crashes, as well as delayed responses to many areas of Kershaw County,” Edge acknowledged.

Lexington County Sheriff’s Department issued a statement Thursday to the media, acknowledging that they have increased the amount of deputies on duty for Friday through Tuesday, and will employ its Marine Patrol, Bike Patrol, and Traffic Unit on Monday.  In a statement to the press, Sheriff Jay Koon said, “We’ve carefully planned for not just the day of the eclipse, but the entire weekend leading up to it…we’ll be out conducting extra patrols at hotels, restaurants, and other commercial establishments.  We want to be there to help anyone who needs it, particularly those from out of town who might not be familiar with our roads and all our community has to offer.”

Several first responder agencies, including those in Kershaw and Lexington counties, noted that they are coping with a lack of resources and attempting to increase communication between different jurisdictions to ensure public safety for the weekend.  “In cases like this, you could always use more staff—they are the most important resource we have….If you don’t have enough responders and things get crazy, well, there you are,” said Edge.  “In addition, more alternative vehicles would be useful—motorcycles, ATVs, golf carts, or even mopeds—anything that allows safer travel in large crowds.”

Other departments expressed less concern about the upcoming days, however.  “We are always prepared for anything, any time,” said Lieutenant Curtis Wilson of Richland County Sheriff’s Department.  “What we are doing right now is what we do every single day.  We will have deputies patrolling and traffic officers out.  Our gang task force and special response team are going to do what they always do.  We are all working together to make sure we keep things moving, and there are no major incidents in the city, as well as the county.”

In Chapin, town officials are anticipating fewer problems than other departments have expressed.  “I really didn’t think we would have a big impact in Chapin,” said Karen Owens, the town’s director of communications and economic development.  “We may see some increased traffic at the interstate with people gassing up or getting food.”  Owens said the Chapin Police Department will be fully staffed on the day of the eclipse and will “work closely with our neighboring county sheriff departments—Lexington, Richland, and Newberry.”

The South Carolina State Transport Police will monitor interstates and highways closely this weekend, hoping to prevent drivers from making sudden stops or who park on the shoulder of the interstate.  “We will also be looking for unsafe, impaired, and aggressive drivers who are putting the lives of others at risk,” said Corporal L.T. Catoe, the State Transport Police’s community relations officer.

So…What Should You Do?

Multiple law enforcement, fire, and EMS agencies have issued advisories and warnings for Midlands residents to handle the expected rush of tourists into the area this weekend.  

Plan ahead. With an anticipated one million visitors to the region, an overflow of road traffic and public crowds could potentially present problems for residents who try to do everyday tasks around public spaces.  Multiple first responder departments are advising residents to stock up on basic necessities to minimize their needs over the weekend.   “We would ask that residents stay put as much as possible,” said Edge.  “The increase in traffic and people in the area may make it extremely difficult to get out to the grocery store, the gas station, the pizza parlor, or wherever.”

Richland County Sheriff’s Department echoes that sentiment.  “Make sure your fill your tanks before the weekend,” said Wilson.  “Have food and things you need already—because of the extra traffic in stores or businesses, it’s going to be congested in certain areas.”

Use extra caution while driving.  Due to concerns about traffic and road safety, West Columbia has issued a very simple message to its residents: “Plan ahead.  Leave early.  Be prepared for a lot of traffic,” according to Huffman.  Similarly, Kershaw County EMS also cautions local residents to be patient as they are on their way to different destinations.  They recommend keeping snacks and bottled water in vehicles since traffic will be congested.

Although multiple departments anticipate traffic problems all weekend, driving during the actual eclipse on Monday presents its own dangers. “The Highway Patrol will be asking motorists to plan ahead and designate a safe location off the roadway if they intend to view the eclipse,” said Hughes.  “It is not only unsafe, but it is illegal to stop in the roadway or along accessed controlled highways for reasons other than an emergency situation…Emergency lanes on the interstate are designated for first responders and disabled vehicles only.”

SCDPS, Lexington County Sheriff’s Department, and Lexington Police Department have stated they will keep the public posted with traffic updates on their social media accounts during the weekend and the day of the eclipse.  “Be very cautious if you are driving during the eclipse,” Hughes added.  “Watch for distracted or disoriented drivers, and be attentive to your own driving….keep driving and turn on your headlights.”


South Carolina Department of Public Safety has prepared a PSA about road safety during the eclipse.

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