Knock On Wood and Water Down the Stew
The question came up again recently. From time to time I am asked just how we, the several dozen who spend the winter on Matinicus Island, would manage should we need to confront a disaster, such as a flood, fire, tsunami, ice storm, outbreak of avian influenza, Y2K-style computer failure, etc.
Please be advised that I am resisting being a wise-acre here, and adding “...dust storm, solar flare, Santa Annas, ebola, terminal shell disease, failure of western civilization as we know it...” Even though Maine is generally spared the worst of nature's routine wrath, our state endures a few bad ice storms, minor hurricanes and such, and there is always wisdom in thinking ahead. I'm involved in various community agencies, formally and informally, and thus am one of those who does some of this thinking ahead.
I don't want to make fun of a serious subject, but the topic always seems to come with baggage. The questioners are making some assumptions that need to be blasted right out of the water. First among these, assumptions, heard from visiting busy-bodies, assorted well-meaning do-gooders, professionals in the field of disaster management, and state agencies of all sorts is the notion that The Proper Authorities will come along and fix things. This community's experience with Proper Authorities has ranged from laughable to insulting, from pathetically unsatisfactory to nonexistent to “made things worse.” This is not the case one-hundred percent of the time, to be sure, but islanders have become wary. Secondly, there's the simple matter of logistics; if the weather is really bad, nobody is leaving, and nobody is coming here to help. Third, for all the overblown impressions people have about this place being primitive and isolated and swarming with cretinous pirates and rabid ax-murderers, when the chips are down, you might very well wish you were here.
(Fourth, that we would take orders anyway. I've been asked: “Would your town government tell you what to do?” Not if they know what's good for them. Most in this community are either captains, which means they don't take orders, or are self-sufficiency enthusiasts and closet anarchists, or are at least the generally insubordinate types that weren't happy back in the old cubicle job, or they don't consider this rock part of America to begin with. Back when 9-11 shut down civilian aviation, that was one thing, but for the powers-that-be to then try to shut down all boat traffic as well put us islanders in a rather unusual position. I understand that there were a couple of blockade-busters, ie. local folks just getting home by means of the only surface transportation there is. Rah!)
OK, enough with the abstractions and intangibles. What are we talking about? They ask how we'd handle a pandemic flu outbreak, when a large percentage of the workforce is out of work (ill, avoiding other people, tending to their own relatives who are ill, or just plain dead.) How would we handle a lack of transportation workers, medical professionals, retail establishments, or child care people? I had to write up a pandemic flu plan a couple of years ago, and it boiled down to the following: this place has always been shorthanded. We are adept at filling in for each other. We are used to checking on each other, plowing snow, bringing food to somebody in trouble, carrying the mail, transporting folks across the bay in an emergency, tending other people's children. We have so few commercial and municipal services here that we have little to lose. Uninsured, uncertified civilians affect rescues, go to work for the utilities, become mechanics and roofers, carry freight, tend to the sick, and do anything they can to help. (Heck, these guys will even rush to help people they can't stand. That's island life.) What, I ask, will the larger communities do, populated mostly be folks who would never dream of suddenly being expected to do somebody else's job? We do this all the time. Our biggest worry might be too many outside people trying to come out here, and running their friends' wells dry.
Do you remember “Y2K,” when the fear was that the year 2000 would bring about a massive hiccup in the electronic world? Nobody would have access to money, payrolls and social security would stop, bank vaults would spring open, airplanes would fall out of the sky, utilities and public safety would fail miserably, chaos and anarchy would reign, there would be rioting in the streets and only the Montana survivalists would have anything to eat?
Matinicus Isle Plantation was probably the most “Y2K ready” community in the United States. So what if it didn't happen; we sure were getting a lot of scary press back then about getting ready. We were smug. It was almost funny. Our power company didn't have anything to do with a computer (even today, the billing clerk won't have one,) the air service didn't need a computer (they fly visual flight rules only and if they can't see the island out the window, they don't even try it,) our little EMS service didn't have one, nowhere would the peculiar digital reality of “00” interfere with our ability to function on this island, at least as far as the actual surviving goes. Those few who might be dependent upon a social security check would certainly not have been left to go hungry.
Maybe we've got something in common with those Montana survivalists; a different theology, that's all.
Recently, there was a piece in the local paper concerning emergency shelter volunteers, and how there was a need for more people to get trained in how to do this work. Surely, learning the skills and procedures necessary to help out in rough times is a worthy effort. When asked (and I am asked, both by summer folks and by agents of the Proper Authorities) what I'd do should there be a big crisis, I usually reply with something like “Water down the stew.” My place would probably make a decent shelter. I live on high ground in the middle of the island, with lots of surplus food (especially stuff to make bread,) lots of surplus propane (being the dealer,) lots of firewood, the ability to keep my house warm and make food without electricity, open field most of the way around making it at least theoretically possible to fight fire and protect this structure, and room to bunk a crowd (as evidenced by the large army of teenagers who descended upon us in August, from Gould Academy and various colleges; we had bodies everywhere, but no complaints.)
We're not making light of the reality; a big forest fire could result in a lot of homeless people in short order out here, a destructive ice storm like the one in 1998 could interrupt power for weeks or months if most of the utility poles were destroyed, and we aren't equipped to take on more than basic medical care. Still, we don't do a lot of worrying. If any community can handle having a major monkey wrench thrown into the routine, it is this one. We've hardly even got a routine.
Eva Murray lives on Matinicus, where they have already had all the disasters they're going to have for a while, thank you very much.