News

Blowin’ in wind

cottonwood

Blowdown across Russian Lakes Trail/Irene Lindquist, USFS

Commentary

What happens if a weather disaster strikes, and there’s no one around to tell the world about it? Does it then cease to be an official disaster?

You might get that impression if you were looking at the wreckage on the Russian Lakes trail of the Kenai Peninsula last weekend, or if you were in tiny, Tetlin, Alaska, when the locals were boating the road in August.

You can watch Roosevelt Sam’s Tetlin riverboat ride along a motor route four-feet underwater in the video here.  Note the motorhome with only a tiny bit of its roof showing about a minute into the clip.

Tetlin suffered when the Tanana River jumped its bank and started flowing through some ponds near the village, said Scott Lindsey, a hydrologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

CAP7Aug_update

Aerial view of the flodding Tanana just upriver from Tetlin/Civil Air Patrol photo

The flooding never made the news. Why would it? Tetlin is a self-sufficient Alaska village of 120 where people are used to dealing with whatever Mother Nature throws at them. Compared to winter temperatures that have dipped as low as 71 degrees below zero – cold enough to turn diesel fuel into jello – a little summer flooding is really nothing.

And the water never washed into town. It just left the village an island cutoff from the Alaska Highway for about three weeks.  Alexander seemed largely nonplussed by the inconvenience.

“All the water is gone,” he Facebook messaged this week. “Went back into Tanana River.”

Life is like that in Alaska where so much goes on beyond the reach of reporters who love a good disaster. Disasters are dramatic. More than that, if they happen near you they are easy to cover. And for television and increasingly for online video, the “visuals,” as they say, are awesome.

Blow me over

The television reporter buffeted by high winds has become such a cliché that in the wake of Hurricane Irma Will Oremus at Slate was compelled to write an entire story headlined “In Defense of the TV Reporter Standing Outside During a Hurricane.”

Oremus goes to great lengths in discussing whether this behavior is foolishly dangerous (like someone really cares if a journalist gets killed doing this?) or vital to “scaring people to stay inside” (as if anyone listens to advice from journalists these days).

Eventually, Oremus came to this conclusion:

“In a time of fake news, when every disaster brings a fusillade of doctored and misleading viral photos, bringing viewers directly to the scene in the person of a trusted anchor has more value than ever. Deb’s story implied at one point that “the rise of social media” might render the practice unnecessary. But scrolling through Facebook or Twitter during Irma, it was almost impossible to know which images of devastation were real. Even the president’s social media director, Dan Scavino, tweeted a video that turned out not to be authentic. He shrugged off the mistake by saying that he was trying to sort through hundreds of images sent to him by members of the public.”

Ah yes, the “trusted anchor.”

Would that be Lyin’ Brian Williams now back front and center on MSNBC or sometimes factually challenged Sean Hannity over at Fox News? 

Fake news! Fake news!

Fake news, made-up news, wrong news, simply inaccurate news, spun news, distorted news and less-than-accurate news of every other sort is so everywhere these days that there are actually good reasons to be skeptical about everything and everybody.

Why wouldn’t a television network put a prop behind a reporter and shoot a hurricane in a wind tunnel? It would be a lot safer right? And in a business where the lines between reality and the depiction of reality keep blurring, would it really matter?

For most people, probably not. A lot of news these days is really just entertainment.

For other people, though, facts have value. If you were, for instance, a mountain biker heading south from Anchorage for a ride on the Russian River trail last weekend, it might have been nice to know before you made the 100-mile journey south that parts of the trail were pretty much buried in blow down from a windstorm that swept the Kenai last week.

Hundreds of trees were toppled across the trail, a Forest Service employee in Seward revealed, but he wasn’t allowed to talk about it. He said any information provided the media would have to come from Chugach National Forest spokeswoman Alicia King.

Maybe people who called from the non-media got more.

Anyway, King knew nothing, which is usually the way these referrals work. If a reporter gets lucky, the public information officer actually calls the person with the information, gets a summary, and calls the reporter back. All of which renders already secondhand information third hand.

And even third-hand information is better than no information.

A request to King for the name of the person staying in the Upper Russian Lake public-use cabin during the storm went nowhere. Someone discovering the route back to civilization an obstacle course of up, down, under, over and around blow down trees would surely have interesting, firsthand information to share – not to mention an interesting tale.

Alaska has a way of turning seemingly simple outings into adventures. Always go prepared, boys and girls.

King said she would see if she could find out who was renting the cabin, though she wasn’t sure where such information was kept. She promised to call back. She never did.

 

That’s something all too normal in Alaska where government officials engaged in public information sometimes seem to strive to see that there is as little as possible. The behavior is easy enough to understand.

Sometimes, from their point of view, the best story is probably no story. Because if there is no story, it’s almost like nothing happened.

It’s sort of the opposite of those reporters running out into the hurricane.

 

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8 replies »

  1. The identity of people who rent federal public use cabins is protected under federal law (Privacy Act of 1972). That law tells federal agencies that whenever they collect personally identifiable information from the public, they have to disclose what use will be made of the info, and safeguard it from disclosure except in limited circumstances, e.g. criminal investigations. Although I would probably be happy to talk to Craig about trail conditions I encounter when using federal areas, I would not like it if I learned that the Forest Service was disclosing my ID as a facility user to a third party without my advance permission and knowledge. Think about it: do you really want anyone who asks to know when you are using a remote cabin? Among other things, this is an invitation to burglers to hit your house, and to stalkers to harass you in a location far from law enforcement. Most Alaskans probably agree that we all have a right to be left alone . . .

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    • Cassie: so does this apply to all the spaces the federal government rents or just FS cabins? the Anchorage Daily News, for instance, used to rent the EAFB Officer’s Club for Christmas parties. would the information as to whom the Air Force is renting space or the GSA or other federal space fall under the same Privacy Act restrictions? i admit i’m not familiar with the law here, but i am pretty familiar with the cabins. most people leave their names in the log books. they don’t seem all that concerned about being named. i can see where a restriction on the release of bookings might be worth protecting for exactly the reason you state, but what would be the reason for privacy protection for who has taken advantage of the use of a government facility, as opposed to who plans to or is at this moment resident there.

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      • The law tells the federal government how to handle personally identifiable info any time it collects it from an individual. I don’t think it includes commercial users of federal facilities (e.g. ADN) but I’m not an expert. If a person chooses to leave their name in a cabin log, that’s their choice, and many people use their initials, nicknames, aliases, etc., with no other info (home address, email address, SSN, credit card number, birthday, etc.). For an example of a Privacy Impact Assessment associated with the National Recreation Reservation Service, see https://www.usda.gov/sites/default/files/documents/FS_National_Recreation_Reservation_Service_(NRRS)_PIA.doc

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      • cassie: i’m not an expert here either. but i read the reservation site. the privacy policy there clearly applies to the information collected to make AND pay for the reservation, which goes way behind someone’s name. and as far as i can tell, that policy does not apply to the USDA. federal facilities i am sure are regularly rented in the name of an individual. the GSA, for instance, will rent you the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium for a wedding. i find it hard to believe we’d have a law in the country blocking citizens from finding out who is renting/leasing federal facilities. it would be no different than keeping secret the names of people or corporations, which are considered individuals in this country, who lease oil or gas or rangelands. it’s just an invitation for corruption. but the privacy versus pubic-information statutes have become such an unfathomable mess in this country these days, who knows. https://www.gsa.gov/about-us/regions/national-capital-region-11/buildingsfacilities/meeting-and-event-space

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  2. Some friends and I did a “bike” traverse of the Russian River Trail Sept. 9-10. My friends had the Aspen Flats Cabin reserved. Forest Service was at the Snug Harbor Road trail head when we started. They said trail conditions were unknown, but they had heard reports of over 100 trees down on the Russian River Campground side of the trail, where trail crews were already working. My friends and I decided that “a few trees” weren’t going to keep us from getting to our cabin, especially since we had already done the car shuttle and were about ready to hop on our bikes. We stopped counting after the 7th tree we hauled our bikes over, but at the end of our trip, ran in to the folks who had the Upper Russian River Cabin Saturday night. They said they counted 45 downed trees between Snug Harbor Rd. and their cabin. Our cabin was 3 miles beyond that. It took us 2 hours to “hike a bike” the last 3 miles of trail due to many many more trees to go under, over, or around. Approximately 7 hours after starting off on a 14 mile mountain bike ride, we arrived at our destination, surprised that our arms were so sore after a bike trip, and ever so happy to take a rest at the beautiful cabin. Fortunately, Forest Service had cleared the trail from Aspen Flats to Russian River Campground, so we were mostly on our bikes for the ride out on Sunday. We have never been happier to see sawdust on the trail, and were grateful for the Forest Service’s work to clear the trail so quickly (although a little more info on the way in might have been helpful!). I was certainly glad not to have been caught on the trail in the midst of the storm. The thought of huge cottonwoods crashing down around me is more risk

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    • i’d love to have talked to the people who were in the cabin when that storm hit. sounds like it might have been a little scary, but i bet they were happy then weren’t in a tent….
      we do need a better trail forum where people can get up-to-date info as my friend Doug Oharra has many times observed, but he’s never come up with a quick and easy way to get enough people participating early on to make that sort of thing work.

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  3. So true that lots of wild stuff goes on in Alaska and it never makes the news. A classic was 4 years ago when a 300 foot section of an abandoned pipeline was rolling down the Big Susitna River. This was only 20+ miles from Anchorage. Yet it never made the news. Just imagine if this happened in the Kenai River, where lots of people are around. That would have been global news. Pipeline is gone now. Enstar came and retrieved it, cut it up and hauled it away. Here is a pic of it: http://crust.outlookalaska.com/Blog/MikeMason_SuPipeline_2013_1.jpg

    Another wild event that never made the news: Huge wind event in Prince William Sound last summer. I was at Knight Island before and just after the storm. Post storm you could see that the face of a mountain fell off during the storm: http://crust.outlookalaska.com/Blog/Kelley_KnightIsland_IMG_1842.jpg Wind (and rain) was so strong that it made mountains shake and crumble. But the storm didn’t make the news. Nothing unique about that. Lots that happens in AK doesn’t make the news.

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  4. Craig. I have been reading your edit 4 what seems like 10 years now. Have always enjoyed your perspective and insight. Please don’t stop rooting out the truth and I will read till I die. Former Alaskan resident.

    Liked by 1 person

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