Frontier State Wyoming Prepares for the Total Eclipse

By Kimball Croft, public health response coordinator, Park County Public Health Emergency Response and Audrey Gray, public health preparedness manager, Casper-Natrona County Health Department

The Great American Eclipse passed through 12 states on August 21, 2017. The direct path of totality for Wyoming started on the western side of state and continued 366 miles to its eastern border. Public Health planning teams throughout the state planned on 300,000-500,000 visitors. Although we may have exceeded initial visitor planning numbers, total visitors have not yet been calculated. For a sparsely populated state like Wyoming, which has the land-mass size of West Virginia, Maryland, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Connecticut combined, the number of visitors overwhelmed our highways and roads, but did not overwhelm our planning and response. This was due to our Incident Command System (ICS) and emergency support function public health and medical services (ESF 8), regional healthcare coalitions, and partnerships with federal, local, and non-government organizations.

In many jurisdictions in Wyoming, the planning for this event began two years ago with local, county and state ESF 8 meetings. ESF 8 knew their roles and helped other functions when they needed assistance. Throughout the total eclipse area, ESF 8 began their planning work early, coordinating with area hospitals, walk-in clinics, dialysis centers, Emergency Medical Services, air ambulances and Emergency Management among many state and federal partners, by creating a shared environment of information with public and private entities. Casper, Wyoming, as an example, used a tiered approach for medical services to handle residents and the 70,000 visitors: (1) treat patients at event first-aid stations, (2) direct patients to local walk-in clinics, (3) send only the most severe medical cases to hospitals. For situational awareness, Casper used Graphical Interface Service; this tool helped users place first-aid stations and direct patients to clinics or hospitals where wait times were shortest.

In true Public Health planning and response, Wyoming Public Health implemented communication strategies as determined by the planning groups. Casper, Wyoming, used Haddon Matrices for pre-event, event, and post-event messaging. Messages such as eye safety tips, where to purchase proper eclipse viewing glasses, altitude sickness, heat-related illness and prevention of rattlesnake bites were targeted directly to visitors, residents, at-risk populations, day-care centers and to non-English-speaking visitors. Throughout the state, the most engaging eye care testimonials were from people who had lost partial eye sight 50 years ago during an eclipse. All messages were shared on social media, eclipse websites, televisions at hotels, digital highway signs, local newspapers and radio.

One example of effective planning took place in the frontier town of Glendo, Wyoming (pop. 203). That small city was the first point of totality for many people driving from Colorado and South Dakota. At the start of the eclipse, 10:20 a.m., the Glendo cellular network failed completely. Glendo swelled to approximately 100,000 people. Their small reservoir had over 700 watercrafts (boats, seaplanes, kayaks, rafts). Their detailed plans included where they would find all the needed portable toilets, handwashing stations, trash removal services, from multiple businesses in multiple states.

In all areas of totality throughout the state, the minutes leading up to totality, the highways, roads, and streets (paved, gravel and dirt) became silent, no planes were in the air, the crickets began to chirp, the pigeons flew in circles, farm and ranch animals laid down; then totality happened, complete with shadow snakes, Baileys beads effect, or Diamond ring effect, and a 15-degree drop in temperature. And then, after two minutes and 30 seconds of the total eclipse, most visitors started their cars and began the mass exodus out of Wyoming. Our guess is 500,000 registered cars wanted to go home. What is usually a fairly empty divided highway from Casper, Wyoming, to Colorado, went from a short four-hour, 80-mph trip to an eight-10 hour 5-10 mph adventure with several gas stations along the way running low on fuel. Traffic crawled like Los Angeles rush hour for upwards of 13 hours.

In the end, the Public Health interagency relationships made during planning and exercised during the response and recovery of the eclipse brought many agencies that previously had no emergency incident experience together. The State of Wyoming is one big small town with people who can work skillfully together. Innovation, a willingness to compromise, the ability to plan and  show a genuine care for the communities and tourists in Wyoming is what we saw when we pulled the curtain back. It was the integration of Public Health and emergency planners and responders from all agencies that ensured all visitors could arrive and then leave Wyoming on mostly a single day—with very few incidents.

The most amazing part of the entire eclipse experience was the lower than normal hospital census’, correct EMS pre-placement, lack of snake bites, heat exhaustion, vehicle accidents, and food borne illnesses with almost no eye injuries.

Public Health learned a lot, especially how it was able to work as one large cohesive ESF 8 unit at the state, county and local level with our Public Health partners and the Emergency Operation Centers. Public Health was thankful that the Strategic National Stockpile plans, hospital diversion plans, Chempack, a pre-placed nerve agent antidote, and the Wyoming Medical Stations did not have to be used. But they were ready to go. We lived by the saying “Plan for the worst, hope for the best.”

Was the eclipse over-planned by Wyoming jurisdictions and agencies? The answer to that question varies. Wyoming Public Health and local Public Health agencies were one large incident away from using the entire Public Health response plan. In some jurisdictions, these eclipse plans are being further expanded to form the backbone of an improved mass casualty incident plan or dirty bomb incident that potentially could drive millions of people into Wyoming.

Take whatever Public Health planning you are working on with your ESF 8 partners, multiply the problem by a minimum of 100 percent, and create the nightmare tabletop which sooner or later will be a reality.

For more information, see the following resources:

Kimball Croft, public health response coordinator, Park County Public Health Emergency Response

Audrey Gray, public health preparedness manager, Casper-Natrona County Health Department

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