April 08, 2020

Reflections on our super storm

Congratulations to long time Bangor Daily News columnist Kent Ward for being smart enough to save his “old manual royal typewriter.” Unlike many of us who depend on e-mail and computers, he was able to defy the storm and meet his responsibilities. There is a cautionary tale here for both citizens and governments.

Let’s begin with the governor’s proclamation of a state of emergency. As a child of the fifties, the first thing that comes to mind regarding declarations of emergency is nuclear war. We have long been assured that ” if this had been an actual emergency” we may tune to designated radio or television stations to receive trustworthy guidance. Southwest Harbor residents were spared anything approaching an emergency. Nonetheless, as I sat in a darkened room for a few hours, I found myself wondering how the rest of the state was doing. I tuned on my dependable weather radio — only to experience silence. Similar forays on the FM dial showed that even MPBN, despite its backup capacity, had gone off the air.

Forget nuclear winter. Nature’s real thing reduced much of the state to a dark and silent abyss. How absurd to imagine that even the threads of civilized life could survive the smallest nuclear exchange. Ironically, it is perhaps more accurate to suggest that our faith in technological prowess makes us even less able to withstand natural and human disaster.

Once MPBN restored transmission capacity on Sunday, the station hosted a call-in program on the weather emergency. One caller reported that when asked by out of state friends how things were going, he was fond of responding: “It is like living in the 19th century.”

The caller’s comments were prescient, but they raised further questions. Many of us were deprived for a time of the accouterments of late 20th century life: autos, electricity, television, radios, and computers. Unfortunately, however, most of us differ from our predecessors in that we have built our lives around a faith in the bounty of high technology.

Unlike many other states, Maine still has a surprising number of citizens who heat with wood gathered from their own or nearby properties. The trend, however, appears to be away from such forms of self-reliance. Bangor Hydro spokesman Bill Cohen exaggerated only slightly when he remarked that “people in Maine have become very accustomed to power and have forgotten what to do in this kind of situation.”

In Kent Ward’s words, we demand a world in which we can “climb aboard and head out at the slightest whim.” We expect to drive to a supermarket and purchase ripe strawberries in February. Strawberries can be a nice midwinter treat. But what risks do we incur when we become totally dependent on complex and far flung networks to meet our most immediate human needs?

Both individually and socially we need to step back from this technological trajectory even if it entails reductions in short-term efficiency. Some callers to MPBN suggested the state now consider burying all its wire cables to avoid future damage. Yet such a project would require enormous expenditures and would render any future electricity disruption harder to detect and repair. Far better on an individual level to keep the wood stove, to add insulation, and to store ample quantities of imperishable can goods. Over the longer haul, we ought to develop more decentralized modes of minimal backup energy for homes and communities.

Precautions must go beyond the individual level. We were fortunate to have exceptionally skilled and dedicated utility workers both from here and out of state. Nonetheless, in an era of deregulation, can we count on such resources for the foreseeable future? Maintenance and repair crews are an ongoing expense. Short term, bottom line oriented thinking in an increasingly competitive environment could tempt utility conglomerates to cut this capacity to the bone. Only regulatory oversight can forestall that danger.

Broader community and transportation planning must also remain attentive to the possibility of technological or climatic disaster. Literal local self-sufficiency is neither possible nor desirable. Nonetheless, when production and sale of food becomes exclusively dependent on long distance transit — especially trucks and autos — we invite tragedy. Sustaining regional food bases — even when not fully competitive on national markets — is an important form of social insurance that public policy must address. And may we continue to denude our public sector with impunity? Those shelters on which many Maine residents recently depended are one vital manifestation of the “big government” so many political leaders like to vilify.

An event like the recent ice storm can occasion fear and anger. It can, however, also evoke some of the best in us, a sense that we are not and can never be fully in control. It can lead us to question the technological hubris that has gripped too much of both left and right throughout much of this century. If the recent storm can catalyze such a broader set of questions, perhaps we can extract something worthwhile from this tragedy.

John Buell is a political economist who lives in Southwest Harbor. Readers wishing to contact him may e-mail comments to: jbuell@acadia.net.

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