How Nebraska Emergency Managers Dealt with the Eclipse

Inside the Nebraska Emergency Operations Center on eclipse day. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)
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August 24, 2017 - 6:45am

For emergency managers, Monday’s solar eclipse was a massive event with potential for a lot of problems. We spent the day at Nebraska’s emergency operations center to find out how they handled the unknowns that came with this rare event.


The state’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) is a relatively new Nebraska Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) facility in Lincoln. There’s a large main room with a high ceiling and rows of tables and computers. These are workstations for coordinators from a long list of agencies like the State Patrol, National Guard, Health and Human Services, Transportation and Red Cross, to name a few. They’re facing large screens that on this day display weather radar, live traffic cameras and TV coverage of the eclipse. Adjacent are smaller meeting rooms and offices.

NEMA Assistant Director Bryan Tuma (all photos by Mike Tobias, NET News).

 


Jeni Campana, Nebraska Department of Transportation.

 


EOC staffers monitor an eclipse briefing from counterparts in Colorado.

 


Weather radar, live traffic cameras and TV eclipse coverage were on EOC screens throughout the day.

 


How busy were Nebraska's small airports? Ronnie Mitchell, director of the Nebraska Department of Aeronautics, was contacting airports on eclipse day. Here are a few of his numbers:

  • Alliance: 150-190
  • Beatrice: 100-140
  • Grand Island: 80-100
  • North Platte: 60
  • Scottsbluff: 49
  • Broken Bow: 34
  • Fairmont: 28

"The FAA was kind enough to send mobile control towers to Alliance and Beatrice, with controllers, and they managed the traffic both air and ground," Mitchell said. "So that was a big safety factor. We've just had a very successful, safe day."

 


The NET Television program "Nebraska Stories" wants your eclipse photos, videos and stories for possible use in an upcoming episode! Details at nebraskastories.org.

This facility is often dormant. It’s activated at different levels for things like big weather events such as tornadoes and floods, and may stay open for several days to aid response that starts at the local level.

“All events are local events,” said Bryan Tuma, who runs NEMA’s day-to-day operations as the agency’s assistant director. “We support folks at the local level when the event exceeds their capacity and they need resources. Our job is to make sure we can get those to those folks in the most appropriate manner. It is designed to be a very structured operation.”

The center is not usually scheduled to be up and running. But then again there’s nothing usual about eclipse day. There were weeks, even months of planning. But no one in this room worked the state’s last total solar eclipse in 1954, and it didn’t draw hundreds of thousands of visitors.

“This is more of a watch, wait, observe and react if you need to type of thing," NEMA’s Earl Imler said.

“It’s just very difficult to plan for,” said Jeni Campana, communication division services manager for the Nebraska Department of Transportation. “From the transportation side, this is really an unprecedented event. There is absolutely no model.”

By 10 a.m., the start-of-the-day problems of a water line break in Seward and storm-related power outages in Lincoln took a back seat to the expected.

Campana and Austin Yates hovered over a monitor, looking at Department of Transportation cameras showing a huge traffic jam on westbound Interstate 80 in Omaha. It was caused by an accident that killed a Creighton student leaving Omaha to watch the eclipse. Campana’s job in the EOC is stressful, as she monitors and gets information out quickly about packed roads, people parking where they shouldn’t and rest areas so crowded they’ll eventually be closed.

“We have people that are on top of our shelters, at the rest areas,” she reported in one of the EOC briefings on eclipse day. “So we’ve got staff out there to kind of help with crowd control. We’ve also called in State Patrol to be available, to be able to help with those people in those locations.”

Campana said many travelers are driving to eclipse events, especially west from Omaha. But they’re also on the move, in mass, looking for cloud-free viewing. “Like one guy said he was coming in with two tour buses and 50 cars in a caravan. So they’re trying to be as mobile as possible, to be able to go wherever they’re going to need to go.”

Full briefings continued about every hour. They are formal and structured, with a military operation feel and lots of terms foreign to those from the non-emergency management world. These included updates on car and air traffic, weather and the water problem in Seward.

Before noon it became “hurry up and wait” time in the EOC. Screens showed empty roads as the eclipse closed in on its 18-minute trip across Nebraska. Looking at central Nebraska, Campana and Yates observed that “this is definitely not typical to see as little traffic as that, especially on a 281 and I-80 corridor, which are two major corridors.”

The lull in activity let the 50 or so people working the eclipse event experience it. Seeing what it looked like on a traffic camera from North Platte, where skies were clear, led to an exclamation of “oh sweet!”

But those EOC staffers that slipped out the back door to watch as the eclipse crossed over Lincoln were greeted with cloudy skies. “The most amazing thing I did not see,” joked one watcher.

“Hopefully on the downside,” EOC Briefings continued through the afternoon, with the biggest concern “just monitoring everybody getting back to where they started from,” Imler said.

There would be weather worries, a few more accidents and slow moving traffic. Before the eclipse, “planning for the worst, hoping for the best” was a mantra. In the state’s Emergency Operations Center, it seemed to work out that way.

“Everybody worked well together. We got the information flowing back and forth as it should, and really led to an effective operation,” Tuma said.

It’s an operation that won’t need to be repeated for a very long time.

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