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Eclipse Monday: Preparing for the worst, hoping for the best

  • State, county and local officials met Aug. 8 at the Randolph County Health Department for their final pre-eclipse planning meeting.

    State, county and local officials met Aug. 8 at the Randolph County Health Department for their final pre-eclipse planning meeting.
    Pete Spitler/Herald Tribune

By Pete Spitler
updated: 8/17/2017 10:25 AM

There's going to be a lot of anxious people watching the weather reports during the next several days.
State, county and local officials met Aug. 8 at the Randolph County Health Department in Chester for their final pre-eclipse planning meeting ahead of Monday's Great American Solar Eclipse.
With estimates of up to 50,000 people (weather permitting) visiting the region for the event - the first eclipse to travel from the Pacific to Atlantic oceans across the continental United States since 1918 - the challenges are many.
"Our main concern will be traffic, I think," said Randolph County Sheriff Shannon Wolff. "We've been checking with the (Illinois) State Police to see what they have available."
Wolff noted that ISP District 11, which is based in Collinsville, will be assisting local law enforcement with the eclipse traffic. District 13 troopers, who are based in Du Quoin, will be helping oversee Carbondale's event.
Chester Fire Chief Marty Bert shared concerns about communication breakdowns with radios and cell phone service, given the large influx of people in a shared space. Randolph County Emergency Management Agency Coordinator Mike Hoelscher said he had spoken with Verizon and was told by a representative that the company's technology was up to the task.
To aid first responders, a mobile command center will be set up at the Cohen Complex, which is one of two main city-sponsored viewing locations for the eclipse along with the Chester Welcome Center.
"Unless something major goes down, I think we'll be able to handle the radio traffic," Wolff said.
Still, roads clogged with eclipse chasers will be a major hurdle for emergency response, something that was stated by more than one agency representative at the meeting.
"We won't be able to give mutual aid or receive mutual aid," Bert said. "If something major happens, we'll have to figure it out."
MedStar Ambulance Vice President Michael Kelley stated an additional two or three ambulances would be staged in the county for the eclipse.
"There are so many groups who have asked us for help and we told them we're going to stick with the counties we are in," he said.
Chester Recreation Director Patti Carter said more than 2,000 people were already pre-registered for spots at the Cohen Complex, one of two city-sponsored viewing sites along with the Chester Welcome Center. An additional 84 had signed up to be at the Welcome Center.
On-call cooling stations will be available at Grace Church and the Chester Public Library, with an additional one at the Cohen Complex on Monday. Walmart will stay open continously from 6 a.m. Sunday to midnight Monday.
"This is going to be as big as people are saying it is," said Chester Mayor Tom Page during the Aug. 7 meeting of the Chester City Council, the council's last session before the eclipse. "We're preparing for the worst and hoping for the best."
Chester City Hall will be closed Monday to free up city employees to help in the eclipse effort, and the council has moved its normal Monday session to Aug. 28. Chester Police Chief Ryan Coffey has been recommending local residents treat the day as a snow day and stay home.
"The City of Chester can only handle so much traffic," Page said. "There's going to be some hiccups."
Page noted city officials are taking notes that will be examined when the time comes to prepare for the 2024 solar eclipse, which will also impact Chester.
Across the Mississippi River, Perry County (Mo.) EMA officials are anticipating 120 airplanes to be flying into the Perryville Municipal Airport for the eclipse, which will have totality for 2 minutes and 34 seconds in the city. A helicopter with Air Evac will be available, with paramedics treating patients on-site unless it is a life-threatening situation.
The Illinois EMA will be staging at the Sparta Armory and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources will have boats in the area.
On the economic impact front, a number of area businesses and organizations have planned events during the weekend prior to the eclipse, with Chester featuring activities ranging from a free concert in Cole Park on Friday, to presentations at the Chester Public Library and Mississippi Moon Fest at Chester First Baptist Church.
The World Shooting and Recreational Complex in Sparta is also a focal point, with the Adler Planetarium scheduled to be on-site from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday.
"The whole weekend should be very busy," Page said. "But, I think it will be good for the businesses downtown."