Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Jesus wept.

Me too.

This weekend I went to Crescent City. The Bishop likes a deacon along when he visits a congregation where there isn't one, so because of my prior work consulting with St. Paul's and my wish to see friends (and buy Rumiano cheese) I made the 300 mile drive.

One of my goals was to find out what was happening in the wake of the March tsunami. I met Nancy Suksi, who is working as a special assistant to the Harbor Master, at church and then visited her at the harbor on Monday morning before heading home.

The shocker was to take a good look at the harbor and see how very few boats were there.

The tsunami damaged the sea wall, already weakened from a storm a few years ago. As a result that harbor has so much silt in it that it must be dredged before it is fit to use. New permanent docks will need to be built, but there is no way this can be done before crab season which starts December 1. Dredging is costly, docks are costly and Del Norte is one of the poorest counties in the state, and certainly the poorest on the coast. Of course there is FEMA money - but it comes as reimbursement, after the work is done.

Nevertheless, folks in Crescent City remain hopeful (though not overly optimistic) that their plan to dredge the harbor round the clock during October and put in some temporary docks for the crab season can be accomplished.

That's the story when you've got a community whose well being depends on fishing - other than government jobs fishing is the main industry in Del Norte - and that makes recovery from a disaster which affects the fleet and harbor a double whammy.

Some of the boats from Crescent City are now fishing out of Eureka or Brookings, Oregon. But this is not a long term solution. Fuel is expensive ($4.07 is the best price in town for gasoline), moving crab pots and other equipment to other ports isn't easy, and navigating unfamiliar ports in winter, the stormy season, isn't pretty or safe.

Some of the boats - older wooden boats used by fisher families whose modest livelihoods depend on them - were lost in the tsunami. There are some funded recovery jobs for these folks, but not enough and not well paid. For a comparative statistic, consider that fishing out of Crescent City pays four times what tourist industry wages pay. The recovery jobs may pay more than cleaning a motel room, but closer to that than fishing does.

Churches are stepping up to the plate with charitable help for those who are struggling. I am so impressed with what St. Paul's is doing, and how so many of its members are involved - from helping with their community meal to leadership of important civic initiatives. Never underestimate what a small congregation can do.

So by now you may be wondering why this on a food systems blog. Well, sometimes we forget the fisheries sector of our food system. Much of the dungeness crab we eat at our holiday parties and January crab feeds comes from Crescent City. I don't know where winter celebrations would be around here without it. Sad, I think.

But the other thing that breaks my heart is that the disaster that hit this small community right in its vitals has received so little press, so little attention. It made me think - when do the disasters that hit our rural food producing communities get any media attention? Unless it's a drought that wipes out all of one of the big commodity crops, we rarely hear about it. Or if we do, we hear once, and never get updates on the recovery process, as we do when tragedy disrupts an urban area. Yet the proportional impact in a rural agricultural or fishing area may be even greater.

And yes, I really did weep looking at that empty harbor.

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