Ricketts eclipse

Gov. Pete Ricketts shows off a pair of eclipse glasses during a news conference with state agency leaders Monday at the Capitol.

Nebraska is three weeks from what could be its biggest-ever tourism event.

The total solar eclipse is expected to attract more people than any occasion in the state's history, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Monday. One study estimates 117,000 to 466,000 visitors could converge on the eclipse path as it cuts across 468 miles of the state on Aug. 21.

"We really have a wonderful opportunity, not only to see a unique event, but also to show hundreds of thousands of people what a great place we have to live — to show them The Good Life," Ricketts said, slipping on a pair of eclipse sunglasses during a news conference at the state Capitol.

State agencies have been preparing for months or, in the Nebraska Tourism Commission's case, years.

The state Emergency Management Agency, Department of Transportation, State Patrol and Game and Parks Commission all have made special plans for the eclipse. 

One of the main goals: to keep cars moving on the interstate. 

"We know traffic is going to be a big issue for us," said Moe Jamshidi, deputy director of operations for the Transportation Department. "We're going to be working very actively to make sure the interstate is clear."

Much of the eclipse path covers Interstate 80, so drivers might be tempted to use the shoulder or median for viewing.

Don't, state officials say. It's illegal and dangerous.

Patrol troopers and Transportation crews will be dispersed across the state, particularly on the interstate, to usher cars along if they pull over during the eclipse. 

Major Russ Stanczyk, interim patrol superintendent, said his troopers are accustomed to 100 or more cars "instantaneously" rolling off the interstate near Capitol Beach each year during the Lincoln Airshow.

Anyone who does the same during the eclipse will be directed to a safe exit and viewing spot down the road.

The Transportation Department will use dynamic message boards on the interstate to advise people of traffic conditions, and is working to minimize road construction and maintenance work the day of the eclipse.

Eclipse chasers shouldn't worry about getting stuck behind a house mover or other oversize loads on the interstate.

"We will not permit any oversize, slow-moving traffic during that day," Jamshidi said.

Another note from Jamshidi: "Don't wear those glasses and drive. You will not see anything."

The State Patrol has requested a $10,000 grant to cover costs for 160 overtime hours during the eclipse, equal to about 20 extra troopers and dispatchers working eight-hour days. Three patrol aircraft will also be overhead to help coordinate traffic flow.

Nebraska Emergency Management Agency Operations Manager Earl Imler said the state will use its emergency operations center and incident command system, the same system used during weather disasters and wildfires, to coordinate eclipse response.  

It's impossible to tell exactly how many people will come to Nebraska to view "Mother Nature's cosmic spectacular," said State Tourism Director John Ricks. Much depends on the weather.

"It's looking right now pretty good," he said, knocking on a wood lectern in the governor's office. "Who knows, it's Mother Nature."

The Tourism Commission will attempt a "guesstimate" of the number of visitors sometime after the eclipse.

More than 700 articles reaching nearly 600 million people have given Nebraska about $5 million worth of free advertising for the eclipse, Ricks said. That's nearly equal to the state's entire tourism budget. 

"This is going to build to a crescendo. ... This is not a bucket list thing to do, this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing to do."

Almost every community on the eclipse path has events planned for Aug. 21 or the preceding weekend, Ricks said: "There's gonna be a lot going on."

Thirty-four state parks and recreation areas and more than 100 wildlife management areas are along the eclipse path, said Bob Hanover, a Game and Parks assistant division administrator.

Reservable campsites at state parks are all booked, additional primitive campsites have been added for whomever claims them first, and Game and Parks has printed 20,000 custom eclipse glasses for the big day.

"They say that Mondays are a terrible way to spend one-seventh of your life," Hanover said. "I'm not sure that'll be the case on Aug. 21."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7234 or zpluhacek@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @zachami.

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