Metro-East News

Are we too worried about the upcoming ‘solar apocalypse’?

'It's not going to be the end of the world'

St. Clair County Emergency Management Agency Director Herb Simmons discusses the prep going on for the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse.
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St. Clair County Emergency Management Agency Director Herb Simmons discusses the prep going on for the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse.

Stock up on food and water. Try to stay off the roads for five days. Set up a backup communication plan. Make sure you’ve got plenty of your medication. Top off your vehicle’s gas tank.

And whatever you do, don’t look in the sky without approved safety glasses. You’ll go blind.

No, it’s not a natural disaster. It’s the solar eclipse. But judging from some of the dire warnings issued by even government agencies, you’d think it’s the solar apocalypse.

A notice posted by the Massac County Emergency Management Agency, based in Metropolis, includes all of those suggestions for “eclipse preparation.” It also warns that people should “supervise children and take care of pets that may become frightened or agitated by the eclipse.”

That agency isn’t the only one that’s offering dire warnings and springing into action. One county in Idaho has already issued a disaster declaration. The Illinois Department of Transportation warns that motorists should “not wear special viewing glasses or take photos of the eclipse while driving.” In Missouri — where non-essential state offices in the state capital of Jefferson City will close because of traffic and parking concerns — the state’s Emergency Management Agency suggests having an emergency kit on hand and that boaters not wear eclipse glasses while operating a watercraft.

Experts say it might just be enough to give people eclipse anxiety.

“It’s possible. Anxiety is all about uncertainty, and given how infrequent eclipses are, it’s possible there could be anxiety around it,” said Sarah J. Kertz, a psychology professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She serves as director of SIUC’s Anxiety, Behavior and Cognition Research Lab.

“It’s understandable,” she said. “If people perceive some kind of threat or danger, it absolutely makes sense.”

kertz-sarah
Sarah Kertz

But Kertz suggests people keep the warnings in perspective.

“Some of them seem exaggerated, given the actual risk,” she said. “The one you mentioned about not driving for several days around the eclipse, I can’t imagine why that would be necessary.”

Dr. C. Alec Pollard, director of the Center for OCD & Anxiety-Related Disorders at Saint Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute, noted that emergency management agencies are in the business of protecting people, and probably are erring on the side of “over-predicting” danger.

Alec-Pollard
Dr. C. Alec Pollard

“To me, the only logical concern I’ve heard — other than looking at the eclipse for a long period of time — is if there’s some kind of crowding, if there’s an influx of people in an area or more traffic. But that’s not something to be afraid of,” Pollard said.

He said inflating a danger can cause anxiety.

“You’re making people uncomfortable, perhaps unnecessarily,” he said.

Pollard cited a couple of examples: fear of flying and fear that children will be abducted by strangers.

“The probability of children being kidnapped by a stranger is ridiculously low,” Pollard said. “Fear of flying is a prevalent fear, despite the fact that the probabilities of people dying in a plane crash are incredibly low. More people are afraid of flying than driving, yet the dangers of driving are much more realistic than the fear of flying.”

He added, “The reason people are afraid of flying is because if there is an incident with a plane, it’s on the front page. People are disproportionately exposed to the dangers of flying.”

At least one sheriff understands the exaggerated risks and anxiety surrounding the eclipse. Sheriff Scott Berry of the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office in Georgia posted a tongue-in-cheek warning on Facebook.

“As your Sheriff I expect each of you to begin panicking today. There is no need to wait (until) Sunday night to buy bread and milk. The shelves will be empty already as vast hordes descend on grocery stores. If you wait, the only thing left will be potted meat and knock off brand cereal with such names as ‘RaisinO’s’ and ‘CheeriBran,’” Berry wrote.

Sheriff Scott Berry announces that on Monday, August 21, at about the time your kids are riding home from school on the...

Posted by Oconee County Georgia Sheriff's Office on Thursday, August 3, 2017

Pollard says it’s normal — and even healthy — for people to have a little fear about things. He said it’s a built-in defense mechanism that’s in our DNA.

“Human beings have always been prone to having fear of vulnerability,” he said. “We’re kind of designed that way, because we have the ability to reassess it with examination. We assume there’s danger until proven otherwise. It helps protect us.”

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