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The eclipse, Harvey and traffic

Sep 1, 2017 By Steven R. Peck, Publisher

It's always tempting - and reassuring - for us in Wyoming to compare mental notes with the plight of natural disaster victims in other places. This week the poor people of Houston and the surrounding area, their lives turned upside down by the phenomenal power of Hurricane Harvey, are the spark for those what-if thoughts.

There are people in Fremont County with loved ones in Houston and vicinity. There are relief missions from Fremont County heading that way. As happened following Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago, our small communities may well find themselves welcoming a few transplants who leave the hurricane zone and don't go back.

For the most part, however, natural disasters don't happen here. A hurricane isn't going to swamp our state. Each place has its pros and cons, and we can be thankful that one of our Wyoming advantages is a low risk of sweeping, life-changing calamity from nature.

Just the same, a day might come, even in Wyoming, when we need to respond to circumstances that require us to act in a coordinated way in large numbers. What if a flood warning, a chemical spill, or a freak storm's approach required us to evacuate a neighborhood, or a whole town?

Emergency management agencies and others sometimes stage mock disasters and related drills to test how local citizens and pertinent agencies might handle an emergency. While useful, these exercisescan't duplicate the circumstances that would accompany the real thing. In the end, everybody knows it's just practice.

But we did see something very real on Aug. 21, when thousands of visitors here for the solar eclipse decided to leave town all at once. It wasn't an emergency, but it was no drill, either.

Streets never intended to accommodate traffic in such numbers were packed like sardines. If you tried driving from Riverton to Lander on the afternoon of Aug. 21, you might well have spent more than an hour on a drive that usually takes 20 minutes. The snarled traffic exiting Lander to the south will forever be the stuff of local legend.

And yet, we behaved ourselves.

There had been concerns about that. Local law enforcement and others had readied for some bad behavior, and why not? We'd never seen anything like this before. There were extra officers on duty, and they were prepared to act quickly if a situation got unpleasantly out of hand.

If ever that were going to happen, it would have beenon thatMonday afternoonafter the eclipse, when so many people, no longer having much reason to hang around, wanted to get out of town - and had a hard time doing it.

But, overwhelmingly, people stayed calm. Perhaps that's because everyone realized the alternative would be unpleasant. And it wouldn't help them move any faster. Better yet, perhaps it was because they realized that everyone was in this together, with no one to blame, no one to complain to, no special favors available. The only solutions were cooperation and patience.

So everybody stay calm, stayed cooperative, saw the forest instead of just the trees, and proceeded in an orderly fashion until the traffic cleared.

With zero opportunity to go fast, the next best thing was to be polite. From virtually every indication, that's exactly what we did. That might turn out to be a very valuable lesson to us if something worse ever happens.

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2017-09-24