12 hours to Salem? I-5 port-a-potties? Busting Oregon eclipse rumors

Fast facts about the 2017 eclipse

SALEM, Ore. -- Will we run out of water? Will the drive from Salem to Portland take as long as a trek to Salt Lake City? Could the sheer number of people, or other cosmic forces, trigger the Big One?

The Great American Eclipse is not only drawing anywhere from 125,000 to half a million visitors to Salem and the surrounding areas, it has spawned dozens of rumors.

"There's been a considerable amount of information provided — and certainly a tremendous amount of planning," Salem City Manager Steve Powers said during a recent city council meeting.

Related: Complete eclipse coverage

Yet pieces of misinformation seem to be swirling around the city and on social media, as well, he warned.

When the Statesman Journal asked readers to submit the top eclipse-related rumors they've overheard, the 70 responses ranged from silly to serious.

Some could ruin weekend plans, like thinking the pedestrian or vehicle bridges will be closed.

Others, like fearing the city will run out of water, could trigger panic.

And some, such as the rumor that the city will be handing out marijuana, bags of Cheetos and free rides on the carousel, are simply baffling.

We brought the rumors before city, state and public safety officials to set the record straight. Read on to find out which eclipse rumors were busted:

Will one lane of Interstate 5 be closed for emergency vehicle use?

This one got resounding "NO" from Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman Lou Torres.

Roads are expected to be busy and ODOT officials are doing everything they can to ease traffic jams, including suspending all construction work from Aug. 18 to Aug. 21. Construction will not be able to resume until after midnight on Aug. 22.

Could it take 12 hours to drive from Portland to Salem? Or 18 hours to Bend?

With an estimated one million visitors and 250,000 vehicles on the road, heavy congestion is almost guaranteed in some spots. But even a trip to Portland crawling at 5 mph would only take 9 hours. A complete highway closure caused by a crash or fire could lead to lengthy delays.

Torres said people should leave early for their destination and stay late to avoid serious traffic. Travelers should stock up on water, food and maybe a good book — or audio book —  to handle the almost inevitable delays.

Will semi-trucks be banned from Oregon's highways?

"ODOT is not prohibiting big-rig traffic in Oregon," Torres said.

How else, he asked, would visitors and residents get their gasoline, food and eclipse paraphernalia? A ban would also put a major halt on interstate commerce.

The agency is restricting one kind of truckload, he said. Overwidth loads will not be issued permits during the weekend and eclipse.

Will stores and stations run out of food and gas?

City, county and state officials have been working with businesses to prevent food and gas shortages, Negele said. They've encouraged those in the industry to have plenty of goods on hand and to modify delivery schedules due to traffic.

Negele said gas shortages are less of a concern along the coast and near cities but could an issue in more isolated portions of eastern and central Oregon. Drivers should start trips with a full tank of gas and fill up when they can.

Salem officials are also advising residents and visitors to stock up on snacks, groceries and gas beforehand. If people don't already have 72-hour emergency kit, now would be a good time to put one together.

"Be prepared, but don't hoard," Mark Becktel, public works operations manager, said during Monday's council meeting.

Will ODOT put portable toilets along I-5?

Although it may be convenient to pop into a porta potty along the highway, Torres said people should not stop on the side of the road unless it's an emergency.

The agency is not placing portable toilets along the busy interstate, but all rest areas will be open. Travelers should plan their trips with these bathroom stops in mind, Torres said.

Are women timing their C-sections to match the path of totality?

Salem Health hospital's birth center is running business as usual on the day of the eclipse, said registered nurse Jennifer Henkel, labor and delivery nurse manager.

"Induced births will only happen if the mother has a medical reason to do so," she said. “The hospital would like to ensure we have enough beds available on Aug. 21 in case of a patient surge, so no electively induced births are planned for that day.”

Could the eclipse — or a large number of visitors — trigger "The Big One" earthquake?

Short answer: No.

"There's no scientific evidence that we know of that would give that any credence," Paula Negele, spokeswoman for the Oregon Office of Emergency Management said.

But, she added, visitors to the coast should always be prepared for the possibility of earthquakes and tsunamis. That means knowing the risks, what do to if the ground starts shaking and where to find tsunami escape routes.

Will the Center Street and Marion Street bridges be closed or reduced to one-lane?

Absolutely not, said ODOT Torres. This bit has proven to be pervasive, with city officials even taking to social media to dispel the rumors.

Torres said there are no planned closures of state highways or bridges before, during and after the eclipse. The only things that could lead to closures are serious crashes or fires, he said.

Will Salem's sewers overflow? Will the city run out of water? Could the electrical grid be overloaded?

City spokesman Kenny Larson largely nixed these doomsday scenarios. "We have no concerns about running out of water," he said.

Salem officials are installing 16 water bottle filling stations to the city's park to help keep visitors hydrated. They're also adding 115 chemical toilets to keep bathroom lines from reaching Coachella-like proportions.

The city's wastewater treatment system handles about 30 million gallons a day, but has a capacity of 205 million gallons. And although residents and visitors may experience downgraded cell service when crowds are at their peak, Salem's power grid won't be knocked out, Larson said.

Will schools and the hospital be closed?

This one is half true. The Salem-Keizer School District announced earlier this month its facilities would be closed to the public over the eclipse weekend due to safety concerns.

The Salem Health hospital, however, will be very much open.

Wayne McFarlin, emergency preparedness administrator for Salem Health, said the hospital is bracing for a 25 percent increase in visits.

The hospital is increasing staffing, preparing to shift resources to the emergency room and readying for eclipse- and eclipse-partying-related maladies, like alcohol and drug incidents, traffic crashes, dehydration and eye injuries.

Salem Health will also have five large tents set to deploy if hospital visits spike, and several clinics will be open for walk-in appointments on Monday.

Will the Union Street Railroad Pedestrian & Bicycle Bridge and new Peter Courtney Minto Island bridge be closed?

This would definitely damper plans to bike, run and walk through Salem's three riverside parks.

Fortunately, it's not true.

The city has no plans to close or re-route any bridges or roads, Larson said.

If an emergency renders the Marion and Center street bridges impassable, emergency vehicles could use the Union Street pedestrian bridge to cross the Willamette River.

However, fire crews will be stationed in West Salem to respond quickly to fires and crashes without having to deal with bridge traffic, said Salem Fire Chief Mike Niblock. 

Like ODOT, crews will also pause all road construction over the weekend and the day of the eclipse.

Will Salem's parks become overrun with visitors?

Larson said as many as 75,000 people could visit the city's parks. Officials announced in late July it would allow limited camping in parks. Visitors with small tents can stay overnight on Aug. 20 and Aug. 21.

After that, normal sprinkler times will resume, giving a wet awakening to stragglers.

Medics will be assigned to selected parks and Salem police will increase patrols. About 90 parks and public works staff will oversee the parks. Officials are also adding dumpsters, chemical toilets and water stations.

Becktel said staff will work hard to keep the parks safe, clean and enjoyable as well as being ambassadors for the city.

"We want everyone to come to Salem and enjoy this event," he said. "It's a once in a lifetime event here in Salem, and we want everyone that comes here to love their experience and want to come back."

But, he joked, "just not all at the same time."

For questions, comments and news tips, email reporter Whitney Woodworth at wmwoodwort@statesmanjournal.com, call 503-399-6884 or follow on Twitter @wmwoodworth

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