Oil Spill—What It Did to People
VALDEZ has undergone a population explosion since the oil spill of March 24, 1989. The town has gone from 2,800 to over 10,000. Exxon has hired thousands at high pay to clean up the environmental damage from the oil spill. The influx of thousands has brought social and economic disruptions not easily absorbed by the permanent residents of this formerly quiet little town.
Pete Wuerpel, director of emergency communications for Alaska, highlights some of the changes brought about by the overwhelming flood of people looking for jobs at high pay. Wuerpel said during an interview:
“The long-term impact on Valdez may be more severe than can be estimated right now. The tremendous surge of people into Valdez has overtaxed its facilities. In the seven weeks following the spill, the telephone company has gone from 60 trunks to over 170. The sewers, electric power, small-boat harbor, city dump, city road system—none were designed to cope with the present demand. During April, traffic jumped from 3,000 to 9,600. Airport volume, normally 20 flights a day, peaked at over 680. The impact is absolutely incredible in terms of the ability of the town to sustain it.
“The crisis caused by the population explosion has been overshadowed by the emphasis on spilled oil and polluted beaches, dead birds and sea otters, threatened hatcheries and shellfish losses. The economy has been disrupted, pay scales are unbalanced, businesses struggle to find reliable help. Rising prices strain the pocketbooks of those on fixed salaries.
“None of this is to downgrade the calamities of the oil spill but to put in better perspective the total tragedy and the effect it has had on people. In my opinion the disruption of the lives of the residents of Valdez has been overshadowed by the more dramatic publicity given to the destruction of thousands of birds and animals.”
Some of the longtime residents of Valdez were interviewed. How has this explosion of people into their town affected them?
An employee for the telephone company gave his views, as follows:
“It is now two months after the spill, and it’s total chaos in Valdez. Thousands are still flocking in to get high-paying jobs. All kinds of people. Some the law is after, and they get picked up. Prostitutes come to ply their trade. Children no longer have the run of the town. Parents keep close watch on them, and they certainly should. Some children are neglected, both parents working long hours for Exxon. Money mania has infected many.
“Prices have soared. They double overnight, and in a week’s time, they double again. You have a house to rent? You can get $500 a night for it. Some bedrooms bring almost as much. You can even rent space for a couch. Houses rent for $5,000 or $6,000 a month—one report claimed $13,000 for one house. Cars have been rented out for $250 a day.
“Wages paid by Exxon have skyrocketed. Businesses can’t compete. Their employees quit to work for Exxon. New workers stay for a while, then they too go to work on the spill. It’s rough on restaurants. They stay open 24 hours a day, serve thousands, and some have had to change work forces four or five times in the last two months—they lose them to Exxon’s inflated hourly wages. The hospital had half their employees quit.”
The lure of all this money—very understandable the temptation for someone short of cash and long on bills! How easy to reason, ‘Well, I can work on Sunday and make $30 or $50 an hour, work 12 hours, and get double time because it’s Sunday. I can pay off the car, pay off all my bills’! But you are also neglecting your family, and spiritual values may go down the drain. ‘But I’m only going to do it for a short time, temporarily, to get on my feet!’ you tell yourself. Maybe so, maybe not.
More ominous are some of the emotions unleashed by frustrations. One person said:
“Many have focused their anger on Exxon, and radical extremes of behavior surface. You have a disruption of the value system, a distortion of it. You have people that through their frustration and anger gravitate toward conduct that would normally be abhorrent to them. They are angry at what the oil spill has done to beautiful Prince William Sound and to the thousands of birds, otters, seals, and other wildlife that have long been their pride.
“Such anger has led some to run Alyeska cars off the road. Bomb threats have been made. Even death threats have been made in Valdez against the president of Exxon. Hundreds of extra security police have been hired.”
A substitute teacher says:
“Many children get themselves off to school. I know of a five-year-old in kindergarten who gets herself out of bed in the morning because her mommy and daddy left hours earlier to work on the oil spill. She gets her breakfast, goes to school, returns home, eats supper, and is alone until her parents return at nine or ten at night. What is this doing to her, what is it telling her? Money has blinded some parents, and their children are suffering. Children in school are too stressed to work. Teachers don’t push them but read stories to them, let them play games.”
A housewife finds rudeness and anger:
“Overcrowding adds stress and frustration, which open the gate to anger and outbursts of temper. When supplies were limited, some women buying groceries have had others take their bread or milk. In restaurants latecomers have pushed in and taken tables others have waited an hour for.”
This man expresses his concerns about what is happening to people:
“The impact on the area has been pretty severe in that the population has almost tripled. We’ve gone from a town of about 2,800 people to over 9,000 people. There’s a problem getting supplies and just moving around town. Traffic in this small town has added congestion that makes just moving around a source of frustration and stress.
“Job opportunities have changed dramatically. Offers of employment paying from $20 to $50 an hour have made it difficult to keep a balance in your priorities. It’s challenging to keep materialism from overwhelming family responsibilities and spiritual values. My wife and I have also had numerous calls from friends in the states as far away as Florida and New York and down in Texas and out in Oregon. They have called about the opportunities for work here.
“We know that the economy is difficult everywhere at this time, but we’ve recommended that they not come. They are Jehovah’s Witnesses, as we are, and we try to keep our spiritual priorities uppermost, attending meetings and talking to others about God’s Kingdom. We feel that that is best for them also, and it is not easy to do under the present stressful conditions in Valdez. Materialism smothers spirituality, and it is rampant here.
“How true are the Bible’s words at 1 Timothy 6:10: ‘The love of money is a root of all sorts of injurious things, and by reaching out for this love some have been led astray from the faith and have stabbed themselves all over with many pains.’”
These interviews were held two months after the oil spill. It was predicted that the cleanup work on the environment would have been completed by this time—September 15 was the projected date. When the cleanup work on the oil spill ends and when the thousands of jobs fold up and when the flood of dollars dries up, the longtime residents that have kept their spiritual values intact through it all will make the necessary adjustments.
But it may be years before Valdez will ever again be the quiet little town it once was.
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“It’s total chaos in Valdez”
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Threats of violence
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‘Love of money, root of evil’