Last year, a Wyoming Game and Fish Department officer came across a vehicle stuck on a rural Natrona County road. The occupants had run out of gas. They had no water, no food and no cellphone service.
They were visiting Wyoming, said Lt. Stewart Anderson, to scout viewing spots for the August eclipse.
“No idea that there was a whole lot of middle of nowhere in Wyoming,” Anderson, who oversees emergency management for the county, told Casper City Council on Tuesday. “That’s the type of folk you got to educate.”
Casper is expecting 35,000 visitors during the Wyoming Eclipse Festival, which runs from Aug. 18 to 21, the day of the eclipse. Anderson said the county is anticipating an additional 15,000 visitors but that those numbers will fluctuate depending on weather: If Casper has clear skies, tourists from elsewhere in Wyoming may flock here, whereas if bad weather descends on the morning of the eclipse, Natrona County could see a mass exodus.
Anderson painted a daunting picture of everything that could go wrong during the weekend. Thunderstorms and vicious wind could shred tents and throw them into trees. Highways into town may become congested and, starting at 3 a.m. on the day of the eclipse, busloads of visitors will drive up from Colorado. Hotels, Anderson said, are booked almost solid between Billings and Colorado Springs.
With the eclipse stretching across the nation in a period of just two or three hours, cellphone networks may fail as millions of people send photographs and videos and call their friends.
“This will be the first time, probably since 9/11, that people have all jumped on their cellphones at once,” Anderson said. “This will be the first time nationwide that it’ll truly test the systems.”
Law enforcement and other emergency personnel have backup plans in place to be able to communicate. But the rest of us may be stuck.
Then there is the fire risk in late August.
“It’s the middle of our wildfire season,” Anderson said.
Open fires on private campgrounds in the county are already prohibited, and Anderson said more fire restrictions will likely be announced as the event nears. The Bureau of Land Management is increasing the number of firefighters available as well as boosting staff levels to educate campers on public land.
Then there is the heightened risk of car crashes because of all the additional, well, cars. The increased risk of dehydration because of heat and alcohol consumption. Neither of those types of incidents are ideal under normal circumstances, and Casper-Natrona County Healthy Department preparedness manager Audrey Gray said the eclipse will be an especially difficult time to deliver medical care.
“We already have a health care system in the county that is at capacity on a normal day,” Gray told Council.
To cope with providing care during a weekend when the county’s population may double, Gray said the health department is working to erect three first aid stations in downtown Casper and has arranged to send visitors to clinics and urgent care facilities rather than hospital emergency rooms.
People arrested for public intoxication and those put on involuntarily mental health holds will be medically evaluated outside of emergency rooms as well.
Mills, Evansville and local hospitals will have all their ambulances on standby and staged throughout the region rather than centrally located.
A second Life Flight helicopter will be brought in.
Gray warned that a disease outbreak would be especially difficult to manage given that it is often not apparent until after the conclusion of an event. Local restaurants will be inspected prior to the festival so that the department can focus on evaluating mobile food vendors who drive to Casper for the weekend.
If an epidemic does break out, Gray said local public health officials will have their hands full.
“That will take a lot of resources,” she said. “That will probably be more intensive than this planning process, which has already been quite intensive.”
But Gray said she’s “excited” about the festival and that it has been a good opportunity for the health department to coordinate with private clinics, like Casper Orthopedics, that it does not normally work with.
The county has also prepared for these contingencies — and more, including mass casualty events and terrorism — by running simulations, Anderson said.
The highest estimates for the number of visitors Natrona County could expect is 150,000, but assuming the more realistic estimates of 35,000 to 50,000 visitors comes true, Anderson is confident the region will be ready.
“If we plan big and it is big, then we’ve already planned for it,” Anderson said.