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Posted 9/14/2017

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By Tom Conning, Public Affairs Office


PORTLAND, Ore. — The recent celestial phenomenon, which passed through Oregon Aug. 21 spread a shadow over more than just the state. The solar eclipse also cast a pall on local, state and federal agencies due to the expected massive influx of visitors to the area. Because of this, government agencies expended energy, time and money to plan for potential emergencies, traffic jams and safety issues. Portland District was no different.

Preparing for an Apoc-eclipse
The District began planning for the solar eclipse after numerous media reports predicted that more than a million visitors would swarm to Oregon for the first total solar eclipse to pass across the United States in 99 years. Maj. John Cunningham, Portland District deputy commander, managed a District-wide effort to ensure that visitation wouldn’t disrupt projects within the path of totality because these critical facilities needed to continue normal operations.

“Initially we were trying to feel out if the projections of large crowds and traffic were going to come to fruition,” said Cunningham. “Our major concern was public safety, both in allowing safe public use of our properties, but also in allowing our projects to continue performing their critical missions.”

As a precaution, the District closed roads over Green Peter and Detroit dams and added additional emergency management support, public outreach and security personnel at Foster and Detroit dams, which are part of the District’s Willamette Valley Project. Additionally, the Emergency Command and Control Vehicle or ECCV, provided communications and coordination support.

A Shadow of a Doubt
As the shadow of the moon began passing over the four Portland District projects, it appeared that the District’s planning efforts had been sufficient.

“In the end we ended up coordinating for support and coming up with contingency plans for much greater impacts than we saw at our projects, but I attribute a lot of that to an informed public that made good individual choices to avoid high congestion areas and plan ahead to enjoy the eclipse safely,” Cunningham explained. “The biggest takeaway for me was how invaluable it is to have a staff that is continually thinking about the potential impacts of upcoming events and taking initiative to pull together key players to both mitigate risks and capitalize on opportunities.”

There were visitors at the dams, but the numbers did not come close to overwhelming the staff in the field. In fact, the visitation was only slightly higher than normal during the eclipse according to District staff.

“Leading up to the eclipse, visitation was lower than normal for a weekend,” said Cam Bishop, Willamette Valley Project natural resources specialist, who was stationed at Foster Dam and Reservoir. “(It was) slightly higher than average on the day of, and (visitation) at the (swim) beach we were at seemed high during the event,” he said. Even though no urgent incidents occurred during the eclipse, Bishop noted the importance of having ample Corps personnel stationed at each of the prime viewing locations. “In the event there was an incident, having staff present to observe, report and potentially respond would be a challenge if (we) were not already in place.”

The Sun Sets
As the total eclipse waned, visitors also began fading. However, lessons from the event were becoming brighter and clearer to Dustin Bengtson, Willamette Valley Project deputy operations manager. 

“The planning for the eclipse reinforced some of the lessons we learned from the Cascadia Subduction Zone exercise that will take some work to resolve,” said Bengtson. 

Because district emergency response teams mobilized for the eclipse, the real-time event shone a light on these lessons even brighter than the notional earthquake response simulation could.  In one instance, attempts to prepare for the eclipse were thwarted by financial red tape; Portland District cannot pre-place supplies at its locations, even if those provisions are for emergency purposes. 

“No matter how good we are about planning, if we don’t have the appropriate authorities to supply our projects prior to an emergency, we’re going to have issues sustaining our people,” added Bengtson. “A large-scale and unplanned event is going to be much harder to deal with,” he explained about the supply issue. “After this event, we do have a better handle on how to sustain people.  The eclipse ended up being a good opportunity to assess our emergency management resources, exercise our response plans and reinforce our relationships with local partners.”

The District plans to send these lessons in a report to the Northwestern Division, its next higher headquarters. 

Detroit Dam and Reservoir Eclipse Foster Dam and Reservoir recreation solar eclipse