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VOL. 41 | NO. 32 | Friday, August 11, 2017

Gallatin prepares for the best/worst-case scenarios

By Hollie Deese

Updated 3:29PM
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Sumner Tourism Center at 2310 Nashville Pike has a display of items for sale as they prepare for the big day.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

What if you gave a party and everybody came? I mean a “scary’’ number of guests.

That’s the predicament Gallatin finds itself in as the Total Solar Eclipse of 2017 approaches. The city is right in the path of totality, the big moment arriving on Aug. 21 at 1:27:25 p.m. and lasting 2 minutes, 40 seconds.

A total solar eclipse is when the moon passes between Earth and the sun, completely blocking out the sunlight. The last time the U.S. experienced an eclipse like this one was 1918, and it won’t happen again until 2566.

So, it really is a once-in-a-lifetime event, particularly for Gallatin. The city, about 30 miles northeast of Nashville, is preparing for 60,000 to 260,000 visitors – not counting the locals.

Barry Young, executive director of the Sumner County Convention and Visitors Bureau, admits he can’t wrap his head around how many people will actually show up, and that makes things that much harder.

He has some advice for those planning to drive up to Gallatin or to another hot spot like Smith County for the watch parties – go a day early and fully enjoy the experience.

“To me, this has got to be the largest event for visitors that we’ve ever had here, and probably, will be the largest one we’ll ever have,” Young says.

Getting there

Not knowing how many people will show up and where they’ll decide to stop and watch the skies is causing headaches throughout Middle Tennessee. Nashville is the largest U.S. city in the path of totality – Kansas City and St. Louis are on the edge – one of the reasons predictions about crowds include such high numbers.

Here are some concerns:

Traffic: The Tennessee Department of Transportation estimates that an additional 500,000-1.4 million drivers will be on Middle Tennessee roadways that day with major traffic woes the day before and after, as well.

Gridlock: Traffic jams could result in people getting out of their cars and watching from the road, making the traffic even worse.

Safety: Wrecks and getting emergency personnel to accidents during such traffic worries officials.

Weather: Rain would make the traffic worse, as well as spoil watching the eclipse. (Clouds are spoilers, too).

Basics: Bring food, water and be aware bathroom facilities may be hard to find. There may not be enough portable bathrooms or none at all.

Cars: Figure out a parking plan. Make sure your gas tank is full.

Phones: Cell service may be adversely affected.

Not just another Monday

If you thought Nashville traffic is bad on just any old workday, just wait until the eclipse.

Expect intense congestion, traffic backing up on the interstate and people stuck trying to get off exits.

All of that will likely come to a head at the time of totality. On the day of the eclipse, the Nashville partial starting time is 11:58 a.m. (CDT), with the full beginning at 1:27 p.m., maximum at 1:28 p.m. and the end at 1:29 p.m. That’s 1 minute, 57 seconds.

“I think one of our primary concerns is people stopping during the eclipse, either in the middle of the road or pulling onto the shoulders,” says BJ Doughty, communications director for TDOT.

“After all, people stop on the downtown loop when the fireworks are going off on the 4th of July. We need to keep the shoulders clear for emergency personnel should something happen.”

All it takes is one stopped car getting plowed into, Doughty adds, and suddenly there is a major accident in addition to insane traffic.

Doughty says TDOT is looking at the eclipse as a cross between business as usual and something similar to what they do for CMA Fest and Bonnaroo.

Fully staffed that day, TDOT’s help trucks will be running an expanded route with each driver going just north on 65, then turning around. Some additional help trucks from the Memphis area will also head closer east towards Nashville just in case additional resources are needed.

TDOT also will have queue trucks staged and ready to deploy to warn motorists of traffic stops ahead and messages on overhead signs starting the week before.

But ultimately, it will be up to the driver to just be patient and be prepared. And that extends into Tuesday as well, at least.

“It’s impossible for us and just about anybody else to predict exactly how many people are going to come and when they’re going to come,” she acknowledges.

“We do know that in Nashville the hotels are at over a 100 percent capacity for Sunday night but still at 90 percent capacity for Monday night. We anticipate that Tuesday is going to be the big travel day whereas people might be staggered coming in.”

Other variables can come into play that might affect the traffic, like weather.

Rain might keep the crowds away but could add adverse conditions to the mix, while a bad-timed cloud could send people to their cars to race for a better place to see the brief moment of totality.

“Our goal is just to be prepared to respond,” Doughty adds. “That’s business as usual for us but just a heightened awareness of the problems that it could cause when we’ve got that kind of additional traffic.”

TDOT will limit lane closures the weekend before the eclipse for road work.

But there will be no avoiding how much of a traffic nightmare Monday afternoon around 3 p.m. will be as school gets out, just as the eclipse is wrapping up, which also happens to be the average start time of rush hour.

Nashville Metro Schools made the decision to stay open for safety reasons, fearing unattended children might look directly at the sun and suffer severe eye damage. UPDATE: The Metro School Board decided this week to close schools on Aug. 21 citing expected high absenteeism among teachers and staff.

“We anticipate the Monday afternoon rush hour being pretty astounding,” Doughty says. “I think particularly the core loop downtown is going to be probably not pleasant Monday afternoon, and of course, all of the service streets downtown.

“We’ve stayed in contact with Metro Police, and of course, we’re coordinating closely with the highway patrol.”

Local roads will likely be clogged as well, and even traffic rest areas like the one in Smith County that is almost dead center in the path of totality.

“But, I’m aware of a lot of people who are staying in Nashville, and they’re planning to drive here [Gallatin] that morning,” she says. “Or Franklin. If they try to come through Nashville up I-65 and then over to Vietnam Vets, are they going to be able to get here? That’s the big fear right now. And the reality is, if we have gridlock on the roads, if people can’t move, they’re going to get out of their car and look at it.”

All hands on deck

“I’ve been working on it for two years, but reality has set in now,” Gallatin’s Young says. “There’s so much to be done in such little time. We’re scrambling as best we can. Of course, we don’t have a very big staff to handle this. We’re relying on the chamber to help us and the parks and the city and the volunteers. We’re all working together.

“We’re trying to put on a first-class event, because we know people are coming here from all over the world.’’

Gallatin’s Eclipse Encounter at the 185-acre Triple Creek Park has an Eventbrite site with RSVPs from 17 foreign countries and 39 states. “And, we believe that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Young adds.

There are about 15 viewing events in Sumner County, so it will help the crowds spread out.

And it’s not like Young has unlimited funds to spend either, though they are bringing in a minimum of 50 portable toilets just for Triple Creek and are debating whether to bring in more.

“We are advising people to try to be self-sustainable that day,” Young says. “In other words, have some food and water with you in the car. Please be patient. We know the traffic is going to be heavier than normal.

“Everybody just be aware of that going into it, that they’re going to have to exercise great patience. Get here as early as you can.”

Young has about 100 volunteers to help during the event, but is looking to add at least 50 more.

Zach Wilkinson, public works director for Gallatin, says all of the city’s street and road projects will be suspending for the day as all those 50 employees will instead help with the traffic control, crowd control and trash pickup.

City departments are in discussions about routine work that day. For instance, environmental services is still planning on doing the city’s normal scheduled trash pickup, but may not, as the realization of how hard it will be to get to the service areas sinks in.

“We’re definitely are very concerned about getting around, but I wouldn’t want to discourage anybody from getting to whatever the best viewing area is, because it is a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Wilkinson adds.

“I would just caution everybody that it’s looking like getting around will be very difficult. If you’re going to do it, plan on getting there early and probably staying late, because it’s from my understanding and what other communities have experienced, it’s going to be quite a fiasco.”

Jeff Hentschel, director of communications and administration of Gallatin, says some of the 100 volunteers includes law enforcement and emergency services and others.

“I think everyone’s going to have their hands on deck, helping with the event,” he explains. “But if 100,000 people show up to this event, really we could use more help than could ever be available. I would like to have 500 volunteers if we could get to that number. I think that’s where everyone’s awareness should be helpful.”

That can mean anything from utilizing secret parking spots to leaving the car at home and taking advantage of the city’s shuttle system that day.

“If you’re a local and you know a place where you can park that’s outside of the event, then you should definitely do that,” Hentschel adds.

After the event at Triple Creek is over, sky watchers are encouraged to walk to the various businesses on the Square in Gallatin or take advantage of the free frisbees and beach balls in park.

“I would invite people to think about doing that rather than just jumping right into a traffic jam,” he notes.

Stay aware, be prepared

Large crowds bring their own level of heightened awareness these days, but Dean Flener with the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency reminds people that Middle Tennessee handles big events all the time, including the Fourth of July and CMA Fest. Still, the smaller communities in the path of totality might not be as well equipped to handle the masses.

“With any big events like this, it is extremely important for individuals to have great situational awareness, because this is a large public event,” Flener adds. “I wouldn’t say there’s anything to necessarily be concerned about, you just need to just pay attention to what’s going on around you. Make sure that you know where you are and what you’re doing and what’s around you and what’s going on.”

Flener explains people attending large public viewing events need to come prepared to take care of themselves outside, considering heat, hydration and food. Have gas in your car and provisions too, if needed.

And that includes your solar eclipse glasses. Young says the tourism department has more than 20,000 pairs of glasses to give out for free on the day of the event and hopes that will be enough.

The Sumner County CVB has been working with Homeland Security, THP, TEMA, TDOT and local law enforcements and EMS to ensure safety and preparedness as much as possible, despite working with a wildly unpredictable number of attendees. The bottom line is if you see something, say something.

Cell phone service may be a bit unpredictable, so people are advised to have firm meeting plans in place in case a call just isn’t possible.

“There have been events in the United States where people have experienced reduced cellphone coverage when you have so many people using their cellphones all at once,” Hentschel points out. “AT&T says they don’t anticipate issues with cell phone coverage, and that’s great. But prepare for that possibility.”

Gates for the Triple Creek event will open at 7 a.m., and Hentschel anticipates spots there and at nearby lots will be gone before the 9 a.m. event start time, especially with the number of 2,500 spots already reduced to accommodate vendors and emergency services.

Young says the parks will close to vehicles when they fill up.

There will be free parking at Benny Bills Elementary, Shafer Middle School, the Civic Center and Municipal Park, with golf cart shuttles running through the greenway system. Then, along Hartsville Pike, about eight churches, Sumner Regional Medical Center and other businesses have donated their parking free that day, and five shuttle buses will run as well.

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