In the months leading up to Monday’s Great American Eclipse, there were major concerns about disruptions from a sudden, massive influx of tourists.
With widely varying estimates of the number of possible visitors, many locals wondered whether there could be catastrophic results, or whether the whole thing would be all smoke and no fire. Would it be an eclipsepocalypse or a repeat of the much-hyped Y2K bug?
Officials say it was a bit of both. After completing a debriefing Wednesday, local officials say the influx was indeed massive — estimated at between 300,000 and 500,000 in the region — but there were few major incidents. Store shelves didn’t run empty. It wasn’t hard to find gasoline. There was no uptick in crime. The one wildfire that broke out was quickly extinguished. Roads were packed as visitors left, but there were no major accidents.
That the eclipse went smoothly appears to be the result of extensive planning and coordination that went on for nearly a year leading up to the eclipse.
“We almost had an incident-free experience,” Mayor Rebecca Casper said.
Like the eclipsepocalypse, the Y2K scare was based on very real concerns.
Years before, when computers were in their infancy and memory was at a premium, developers had chosen to save a bit of space by representing years with two digits instead of four. The year 1999 would be recorded by computer clocks as 99.
But in 2000, the year would have been represented as 00. That would make it indistinguishable from 1900, and perhaps make computers crash or process information in unexpected ways.
Some computer failures did happen because of the Y2K bug — a few credit card machines became unable to process transactions, for example — but the worst fears, such as widespread blackouts or the financial system grinding to a halt, never materialized.
One of the most important reasons was that companies, governments and other major computer users made major efforts to patch their systems before the bug could rear it’s head.
And it also was extensive planning that prevented the eclipsepocalypse.
Regional officials, particularly emergency responders, began meeting to plan for the event last October. Meetings became more regular, and involved a greater number of federal, state and local agencies, as the eclipse approached.
Those meetings paid off, said Idaho Falls Fire Chief Dave Hanneman. A wildfire near Menan Butte broke out the day before the eclipse. But wildfire fighting equipment had been strategically staged around the region, and a quick response confined the blaze to only 50 acres.
“We had done a table top exercise a couple days ago where we talked about what to do about a wildfire,” Hanneman said. “Between all the resources that were up there and the preparation, they pounced on the fire very quickly.”
Capt. Royce Clements of the Idaho Falls Police Department said there was no uptick in arrests during the eclipse, and not a single visitor was arrested.
“The people who came were good, law-abiding people,” he said.
Only two minor accidents were reported in Idaho Falls, he said, both involving vehicles bumping pedestrians. But in both cases there were no injuries and police reports weren’t taken.
“All these people came, and they really behaved themselves,” Clements said.
Clements said locals acted as generous hosts. In one case, he saw one family that had purchased a truckload of bottled water and was handing out bottles to motorists stuck in the exit traffic.
“We’re really proud of our people,” he said. “They welcomed a lot of people here.”
Hanneman said emergency responders around the region plan to publish a report on the planning and and first-hand experience of the eclipse so it will be available to other communities when the next big eclipse comes to the U.S. in 2024.
Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 208-542-6751.