Survival Depends On Kindness Of Strangers

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Maybe your lights went out.

Maybe you needed an extra quilt.

Maybe you were snowed in for a day.

A big storm can be a big inconvenience — for most of us. But for some of us, it means an arduous, even dangerous call to service.

The storm rolled through on Monday, hurtling along on 80 mph winds.

As of Thursday night, volunteers, deputies, rangers and police officers were still struggling through deep snow in the high country — looking for more than 30 missing hunters and hikers in Northern Arizona.

Normally, we give barely a thought to those rescuers when we read the small stories of the missing — out somewhere in the dark woods and the white snow.

But think about what it takes to answer that call, in weather that prompts most of us to scurry from warm car to warm house so quick we hardly have time to shiver. Many of those rescuers have gone from search to search for days. Some get paid for their efforts, many — like the Gila County Search and Rescue and the Whispering Pines Volunteer Fire Department — donate their time and struggle.

They’re racing against time now, with many hunters still missing and two new storm fronts moving in.

Of course, one wonders what some of those hunters and hikers were thinking — heading out in defiance of the forecasts. It seems foolish — perhaps even a little selfish, in some cases. But then, they knew that if they got into a real jam, someone would come looking — in the very conditions that had trapped them. If the people now stranded had worried about the rescuers as much as the rescuers are now worried about them, perhaps they’d have postponed their trips — or headed home before the storm closed in.

Still, we’re grateful for those who shiver and serve and stomp through the thickening snow and the darkening woods on behalf of strangers.

So over the weekend when the flurries start up and you stoke the living room fire, give a thought to those others still searching for strangers in the deep woods — just as they’d search for you if called.

Snowplows and seed corn

No doubt about it now: We’re huddled in the dark, eating the seed corn — consuming next year’s harvest in our desperation and shortsightedness.

Consider the Arizona Department of Transportation’s snowplow dilemma, on which the whole region’s ability to function through the winter depends.

ADOT faces a $100 million deficit this year, thanks to both plunging gas tax revenue and the Arizona Legislature’s $500 million raid in the past several years to balance its budget.

ADOT has shrunk from about 4,600 workers to about 4,000 in the process and deferred much-needed maintenance on the state’s roads and highways.

So, what to do about the snowplows?

Can ADOT afford a full compliment of plows to quickly reopen vital highway links like Highway 260 and Highway 87 after a big storm like the one that paralyzed Rim Country on Monday?

Fortunately, ADOT decided to maintain the snowplow budget. Although Monday’s storm shut down vital regional highways at its peak, the ADOT crews got the highways open relatively quickly the next day.

How’d they manage it? ADOT decided to sell off about 450 vehicles to raise $2 million to dump into the snowplow budget.

Even at that, the state couldn’t mobilize all its snowplows, since a hiring freeze stretching back more than a year has prevented ADOT from hiring new snowplow drivers. Moreover, ADOT also doesn’t have enough money to fix any of the $250,000 plows that develop major problems.

How can this state continue to function if we’re selling long-term, necessary assets like highway department vehicles to fund short-term maintenance costs like plowing the roads? And how will the state ever collect enough revenue if cuts in vital infrastructure like roads cripple the economy?

The plight of the snowplows offers one more bleak example of the price we’ll all pay for the Legislature’s lamentable refusal to act.

Even if it means we must all sit eventually in the dark, gnawing on the hard kernel of our once bright future.

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