Middleton Septic is situated on U.S. Highway 97 just south of Madras, giving co-owner Misty Cox an unnerving preview of what traffic might be like on the days before and after the Aug. 21 solar eclipse, which is expected to draw 75,000 people to Madras alone.
“I can vouch for the traffic on a holiday weekend,” said Cox, whose company rents and services portable toilets. “We can’t get out of our own driveway.”
With Portland-bound vehicles crawling along a sparsely populated expanse of Central Oregon, many an unprepared traveler has sneaked into the portable toilets parked on Middleton Septic’s lot, Cox said. That won’t be an option during the eclipse because all 685 of her toilets have been rented out.
Travelers are going to need to be prepared. Much. More. Prepared.
The eclipse could turn out to be the biggest strain on portable sanitation anyone in that industry has seen in decades. And that’s not all.
There are few rest stops on highways 26 and 97, and the Oregon Department of Transportation doesn’t plan to add any portable toilets. Travelers will find toilets at eclipse-viewing campgrounds, but traffic could prevent septic service companies from keeping them cleaned out.
The Oregon Department of Emergency Management, which thinks as many as 1 million people could visit Oregon for the eclipse, even recommends travelers keep a personal toilet.
“That would be part of your kit,” said Cory Grogan, a spokesman for the emergency management department. “Something to, you know, take care of your hazmat materials and things like that.”
The main objective of state transportation officials is to keep traffic moving on highways 97 and 26, not to provide bathrooms for drivers, said spokesman Peter Murphy.
There are three rest areas on U.S. Highway 26 between Government Camp and John Day and two on U.S. Highway 97 between Maupin and Bend, but ODOT will not add any toilets to its rest areas, Murphy said. In addition, ODOT will have personnel stationed at five-mile intervals to prevent unnecessary stopping, whether to view the eclipse, or to relieve oneself.
“It’s not going to be fun,” Murphy said. “It’s going to be a challenging motoring environment, to say the least.”
As the epicenter of eclipse viewing, Madras officials have thought through every angle of crowd management, including toilets, said Lysa Vattimo, eclipse plan facilitator for the city. Madras reserved 125 portable toilets, to be serviced daily, and hand-washing stations, all of which will be scattered around town, she said. Those facilities will be in addition to toilets provided at large events like Oregon SolarFest and at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds, she said.
“I think we’re sittin’ pretty,” she said.
Large outdoor event organizers have to provide seven toilets per 800 guests, but events with less than 3,000 people aren’t subject to that state rule. Around Madras, a dozen private landowners advertise camping for hundreds of people. Those events must apply for a permit from Jefferson County, which will review the applications for fire safety and sanitation.
Jefferson County Public Health Director Michael Baker said he wants to see event hosts provide not only enough toilets but hand-washing facilities. His staff will be handing out miniature bottles of hand sanitizer, he said.
Given the size of the expected crowd, Baker said he’s also prepared to investigate a disease outbreak. “There’s going to be someone sick here,” he said. “Statistically, there’s no way you can avoid that.”
Middleton Septic added more than 150 toilets to its inventory for the eclipse, Cox said. The company also lined up more service trucks and help and even plans to have its own waste-treatment facility ready to go by August, she said.
Middleton will start dropping off toilets about two weeks before the event, and there will be supplies and trucks stationed near customers, she said. Cox still worries that gridlocked traffic will keep her crews from cleaning out toilets over the course of five days.
“If we work all through the night, that’s what we do,” she said. “We don’t want to let anyone down.”
Prineville Disposal will service Symbiosis: Oregon Eclipse, the Big Summit Prairie gathering that has an attendance cap of 30,000 people, plus a number of smaller events in the area. The company also bought additional toilets and now has 600, owner Steve Holliday said.
Like Cox, Holliday said he’s worried about how traffic will impede his workers.
“We have the manpower to do it and the equipment to do it,” he said. “Can I get there? And can I get back?”
Oregon State Parks, which added more than 1,000 campsites to its reservation system for the eclipse, will deploy about 250 portable toilets across the state, and 100 of them will be in Central and Eastern Oregon, spokesman Chris Havel said.
Havel acknowledged those toilets could be full because it will be tough for service trucks to reach them and pump them out. “We’ll encourage visitors to have realistic expectations so they walk in understanding everyone will be doing their best, but the system is going to be strained,” Havel said in an email.
With construction sites and other events in full swing, August is already a busy time for sanitation companies, said John Sprenger, manager in the Northwest region for Satellite Industries, the world’s largest manufacturer of portable toilets.
Sprenger, who previously worked for a waste hauler, said he hasn’t seen an event like the eclipse since August 1993, when Pope John Paul II was in Denver for World Youth Day. About half a million young people gathered in a park, where there were 3,000 toilets, he said.
The event could’ve used 7,000 to 10,000 toilets, Sprenger said, because there wasn’t enough space to provide the continuous service the event required. The result? “Just not very sanitary conditions,” he said. “Toilets way too full.”
Grogan, the spokesman for the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, said the agency is working with various other agencies on messages to prepare travelers for the eclipse, but those specific messages haven’t been hammered out.
“One of the things we want to tell people to do is be prepared to take care of themselves,” he said.
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