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Alaska Forges Ahead   6 comments

Lela’s Medium article on Alaska Reopening Its Economy

Posted April 23, 2020 by aurorawatcherak in Alaska

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Paranoid Preppers Now Prescient   1 comment

My latest Medium article

Sometimes where you stand on a social issue depends on the surrounding events.


As of this morning (St. Patrick’s Day), my daughter informs me that New Orleans looks like something from one of my novels — closed stores, stripped shelves, nobody on the street. This is a problem for a street musician and poet like Ivyl who travels from California to NOLA every Mardi Gra to enjoy the excitement and make good money busking in the crowds.

“Nobody will come anywhere near me and the three people on the street are gloved, masked, having hoodies hiding their faces and they won’t meet each other’s gaze as if that will prevent them from catching it.” Ivyl, 27-year-old street musician and entrepreneur.

For a kid that grew up in the normally friendly state of Alaska and who has worked the Mardi Gra crowds and the shoulder season for a few years now, it’s a freaky situation … like the apocalyptic fiction her mother writes.

Where I’m Coming From

I grew up in the frontier state of Alaska where, thanks to the Jones Act, goods have always been expensive and scarce. We bought our summer clothes in March because it would take the barge three months to get to us — just in time for summer. If we waited until May, our summer clothes would be useless when they arrived in September.

Image ( Robyn Beck) Text — Lela Markham

Credit: AFP via Getty Images), meme mine

My parents always kept a full pantry of canned goods and they bought commodities like coffee, flour and toilet paper in bulk. Every time we moved houses, we dragged all this stuff with us. In high school, as the Alaska Pipeline Construction boom brought us logistically closer to the Lower 48, friends told me my parents did this “hoarding” because they were kids during the Depression. I didn’t yet know that Lower 48ers and Alaskans only partially share a culture.

When I first met my husband, he didn’t get the point and I stopped following the practice. It seemed unexamined to me since we now got twice-a-week barge shipments and the grocery stores were always overflowing.

My Parents Became Smarter As I Grew Older

Then we had our first barge crisis. A volcano outside of Anchorage blew up and truckers refused to drive their expensive rigs through the ashy streets of Anchorage. Everything was stuck on the barges in the Port of Anchorage. Within two days, the grocery stores in Fairbanks looked stripped. Fortunately, it rained in Anchorage and the ash problem shifted away from the city, so shipments soon started flowing again.

About a decade later, there was a longshoreman’s strike on the West Coast and Alaska didn’t get shipments of food for a couple of weeks. Every aisle of the store was pretty picked clean before the barges started sailing again. That was my final wakeup call. I began stocking up. Our emergency stores are mostly canned goods, dry beans and rice, flour and oil, extra cleaning supplies, extra toilet paper, and whatever meat was harvested and is still in the freezer. We’re not all-out preppers, but my childhood in Alaska means I know how to make a water filter, how to get water from the shallow “defunct” well under our house if necessary (which would require filtration), and how to build a toilet using a five-gallon bucket and a jug of Odor-Killer. Being Alaskans, we hunt and fish and are appropriately tooled-up for those endeavors. My husband knows how to snare rabbits and our kids know the difference between high-bush cranberry and baneberry, assuming we run out of the 48 jars of blueberry conserve my husband put up last fall. We also have a few gallons of birch water in the freezer because it has a high Vitamin C content (and is actually kind of delicious … if you can get over that it will make everything, including your toothpaste, taste like birch leaves for the first week). We also have, on average, 10 cords of firewood in the woodshed, so we don’t actually need electricity and heating fuel.

We built our stock slowly over about a three-year period. We’d buy a flat of vegetables or a couple of bags of rice or beans. We didn’t deny anyone else access to resources. We didn’t strip the shelves. I doubt anyone outside the family noticed.

We’re not hard-core preppers. We don’t have a tank of gasoline. There’s no bunker in the backyard. We don’t have “go-bags”. Ten cords of wood wouldn’t fit in a go-bag anyway. We just recognize that we’re at the end of a long and tenuous supply line and live in a state prone to earthquakes, which can destroy port facilities, electric generation plants, and roads. We are casual preppers.

Oh, My God, You’re Hoarders!

Even though we’re laid back about our prepping efforts, it doesn’t take much to garner opinions on the topic. In some people’s view, we’re “hoarders”. I’ve had people suggest I need to seek professional help. There are others who call us “selfish”, “paranoid” or “what is wrong with Americans.” (this from a British author friend who never hesitates to assure me Americans are some lesser form of life. We are still friends because I don’t take it personally). People just cannot conceive of a time when supply lines will be disrupted and the government won’t or can’t step in to rescue them.

You don’t need to have 3–6 months’ worth of food. That’s just crazy.

Crazy Until It Isn’t

We all ought to now be awake about the risks of not being prepared. The fear of CoVid 19 has stripped grocery shelves of toilet paper and cold medicines. You can’t find a bag of rice in any grocery store in my town. My husband, who relies on Benedryl for prophylactic treatment of bee stings, is concerned we didn’t stockpile enough, but it wouldn’t do him any good because I can’t buy it now.

Many in our society mock preppers as weird and paranoid, but it turns out preppers were prescient. They might never actually need two years’ worth of food, but we know now that they did need two weeks’ worth of toilet paper.

Folks should have planned ahead, but they didn’t because — well, why didn’t they?

Why Would People Choose to be Unprepared?

Why did they demonize the preppers? Why did they deny the need to be prepared?

Education is key and education has gone a long way toward misinforming people on preparedness. My children tell me their high school health classes (six years apart in the same Alaska high school) taught there is absolutely no reason to have more than two weeks’ worth of food in your home. “Supply lines are robust” stuck with our daughter, who says she’s now spending her free time working on a ditty based on that line. I recently had a conversation with my son that the “used by” date on a can of beans doesn’t mean anything, that you can still use the contents of that can a decade later. He’s still concerned that I might be poisoning us. Will it have a better flavor if it’s used within the two-year used-by period? Possibly. Can it still safely be consumed a decade later? As long as the can hasn’t been breached and there’s no rust — absolutely. Do people know that? No, and that’s a problem — a failure of education. I think we could also blame the social media gurus who scoff at the idea you need to be prepared.

We live in an age of pretend-abundance. Our grocery stores are plentifully supplied — until there’s a hiccup. The average American grocery store has 2 to 3 days of backstock. My son works at Walmart and he says the one here in Fairbanks has about a week, but in his training, he learned ours is an outlier because we only get twice-a-week barge shipments. Walmarts in the Lower 48 have about 3 days worth of backstock. That matters if there’s a natural disaster or a break in the supply chain from China, for example. It’s not true that the supply lines are robust and CoVid 19 is pulling back the curtain on just how fragile the supply chain really is.

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
― Benjamin Franklin

And it gets worse ….

There’s actually an American law that allows the government to confiscate privately-owned food and fuel stores in excess of two weeks. Government agencies have never made use of that authority, but it exists and should concern all of us. Of course, if the government has the authority to redirect the personally-owned resources of the citizens, it’s just a matter of time before it uses it, depriving individuals of the ability to be prepared in their own homes in favor of the “common good” — meaning the 90% who believed they didn’t need to be prepared. What happens then?

And this is where I think many conservatives — usually the least radical of ideologues — begin to part company with the general consensus. I’m not obeying an order to turn over my food supplies. I planned ahead. If you didn’t, that’s your problem, not mine. Is that selfish? Yes. Is it absolutely necessary? Until the grocery store shelves are overflowing again, definitely. Because in a severe crisis we may have to ask the question —

Do some of us live separately or do we all starve to death together?

Nobody likes to be portrayed as crazy and our culture definitely treats preppers as suffering from a mental illness. I admit some people take it too far, but most people don’t take it far enough.

“There is always a part of my mind that is preparing for the worst, and another part of my mind that believes if I prepare enough for it, the worst won’t happen.”
― Kay Redfield Jamison

There Ought to be a Law?

Clearly I don’t favor a law against prepping. That would just risk lives. I also don’t favor a law that would prohibit the sort of juvenile hoarding behavior we’re seeing now. I do suggest stores start jacking up prices, which will discourage hoarding and have the effect of making what’s left available for more people if they’re willing to pay the price. When hand sanitizer is priced $100 per bottle, people get real-world woke-up fast and come to recognize that good old-fashioned soap-and-water is better anyway.

We shouldn’t be surprised or even angry that people are rushing out to strip grocery store shelves right now. They’re panicked by media reports that the world is ending. I don’t happen to think the world is in peril from CoVid19 (although old people and those with underlying health conditions are at risk), but I also think my husband might be at risk this summer (still two months away at best) if he can’t carry Benedryl with him on his hikes. I’m annoyed by people who didn’t plan ahead and are now inconveniencing the rest of us, but I wouldn’t make laws against them getting what they need. I wouldn’t risk their lives in a vain attempt to control them. Instead, I applaud them for getting to the grocery store before I did, because I would have added a week onto our food stocks, just in case. And bought that all-important Benadryl.

People should be prepared for the unexpected — the natural disaster, the mutated cold virus, the sudden cessation of barge shipments from China or the Port of Tacoma. We shouldn’t need to run out to the store to stock up at the last minute. We should be thinking ahead and prepared.

If you’ve previously mocked a prepper as paranoid, you might want to apologize now, because they’re looking incredibly prescient at the moment. And, if it turns out this crisis is the apocalypse they invisioned, they might share with the people who have been nice to them.

Lela Markham is an Alaska-based novelist and blogger with libertarian leanings interested in a variety of subjects.


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