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Officials brace for onslaught of visitors ahead of total solar eclipse in southeast Oklahoma

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Officials brace for onslaught of visitors ahead of total solar eclipse in southeast Oklahoma

Apr 02, 2024 | 1:45 pm ET
By Janelle Stecklein
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Officials brace for onslaught of visitors ahead of total solar eclipse in southeast Oklahoma
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Oklahoma officials have been preparing for two years for next week's total solar eclipse in southeastern Oklahoma. (Photo by Janelle Stecklein/Oklahoma Voice)

OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma officials on Tuesday warned visitors planning to view the solar eclipse next week from southeast Oklahoma to watch out for rabies, huge crowds, extreme traffic congestion, a lack of cellular service, hitchhikers, food borne illnesses and an uncertain weather forecast.

State leaders said they’ve been preparing behind-the-scenes to address a variety of issues for two years now ahead of Monday’s rare total solar eclipse that is expected to draw upwards of 60,000 people to the remote region in and around McCurtain County. McCurtain County’s usual population is about 30,000 people.

“The total eclipse of the park is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and (we’re) looking at what the opportunity is for the state and for this event,” said Shelley Zumwalt, executive director of the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department. “We’re lucky that the eclipse, that nature chose us, but success is luck plus preparation.”

Seven Oklahoma counties — McCurtain, Choctaw, Bryan, Atoka, Pushmataha, Latimer, and Leflore — are expected to be in the path of totality from 1:44 to 1:51 p.m. Monday

But the eclipse is expected to generate about $7.4 million in tourism revenue per day over the weekend and Monday, Zumwalt said.

An incident management team plans to set up in the region starting Wednesday as traffic begins to gradually increase over the next three days. Officials will remain in place through Monday. 

During a press conference Tuesday, Maj. Gen. Thomas Mancino said the state will deploy 30 National Guardsmen to southeast Oklahoma.

Mancino said the guardsmen will support the Oklahoma Highway Patrol and local emergency managers. He described the deployment as routine.

“Anytime there’s a large crowd of civilians in Oklahoma, we like to be there in case we’re needed,” he said.

Transportation officials warned that roadways in the region will likely experience huge congestion. They also warned people not to park on the sides to view the eclipse. They said visitors should ensure their gas tanks are full in anticipation of being stuck in congestion for an extended period of time. They also urged people not to pick up hitchhikers.

Officials also suggested that visitors bring a paper map because cell phone service in the region can be spotty, GPS access may not work, and existing networks may be overwhelmed.

Keith Reed, Oklahoma’s commissioner of health, said the eclipse is expected to attract numerous vendors, including mobile food vendors. Health officials have been working with potential vendors to prevent food borne illnesses, he said. 

They’ve also been focusing on ensuring domesticated animals in the area are current on vaccinations, specifically against rabies, he said.

“If someone does experience any type of animal bite, they should call a local health department,” Reed said. “From there, we will work with the individual to talk about next steps, assess risk and identify what to do in the situation.”

Reed also cautioned people not to look directly at the eclipse without proper eyewear so that they don’t damage their eyes.

State forestry officials will be on hand to pass out fire prevention materials and have mapped out over 4,400 cabins in the region to help visitors find evacuation routes in the event of a wildfire.

A National Weather Service official said it’s too early to know whether Oklahoma skies might be cloudy on Monday, but said there was a moderate potential to have clear skies in the area. There was a 20% chance of showers or thunderstorms. 

“Southeast Oklahoma, I’ll go ahead and just say it, is the best place in the entire world to view this eclipse,” Gov. Kevin Stitt said.