Alaskans worry about ‘moose, not mis­siles’

Res­i­dents calm amid re­ports that North Korea ICBM could reach state

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY JU­LIA O’MAL­LEY na­tional@wash­post.com

an­chor­age — There have been times in Alaska’s his­tory when peo­ple have had deep anx­i­ety about for­eign threats. The state was bombed and two of its is­lands were oc­cu­pied by the Ja­panese in World War II. And it is, af­ter all, the clos­est any­one can get to Rus­sia and still be on Amer­i­can soil.

But no­body here seems all that wor­ried right now.

With North Korea’s test of an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile last week, the news has been filled with spec­u­la­tion that a nu­clear war­head could reach the Last Fron­tier and that An­chor­age could be the most re­al­is­tic U.S. tar­get for de­struc­tion. But peo­ple here have been talk­ing about the pos­si­bil­ity of mis­sile strikes for decades, and Alaskans tend to fo­cus on more tan­gi­ble haz­ards, like avalanches cov­er­ing the high­way, bear maul­ings at camp­grounds, boat­ing ac­ci­dents and earth­quakes.

“I’m wor­ried about moose, not mis­siles,” quipped An­chor­age Mayor Ethan Berkowitz. “Bears, not bombs.”

Be­sides, it’s sum­mer­time. The res­i­dents of this far-flung out­post are ob­sessed with the out­doors. The days are long. The sal­mon are run­ning.

They have other things on their minds.

“It’s not some­thing that keeps me up at night,” said Chris­tine Ho­man, an el­e­men­tary school teacher sit­ting at the counter at Wild Scoops ice cream shop with her hus­band, Zach, and sons, Le­land, 4, and Colton, 6.

Be­tween bites of salmonberry ice cream, Todd Sher­wood, an at­tor­ney who served in the Air Force for 15 years, said that if North Korea were to do any­thing se­ri­ous, the U.S. mil­i­tary re­ac­tion would prob­a­bly be “dis­pro­por­tion­ate” and se­vere. He doubts the threats are le­git­i­mate.

“I’m more wor­ried about whether I’m go­ing to fall off my pad­dle­board on an Alaska glacier lake this sum­mer,” he said. “And I’m not all that wor­ried about that.”

Part of Alaskans’ dis­mis­sive at­ti­tude about North Korea might have some­thing to do with the state’s his­tory of se­ri­ous threats from for­eign pow­ers, said Michael Carey, a jour­nal­ist and his­to­rian who grew up in Fair­banks, Alaska.

Dur­ing World War II — on June 3, 1942 — the Alaskan town of Dutch Har­bor was bombed by the Ja­panese, and days later two Aleu­tian is­lands, Attu and Kiska, were oc­cu­pied. Lots of peo­ple who lived in Alaska in the 1950s and 1960s re­mem­ber civil de­fense drills, siren tests, black­out cur­tains and ra­dioac­tive iso­topes in milk be­cause of at­mo­spheric nu­clear test­ing. There are still homes in An­chor­age with Cold War-era fall­out shel­ters. The prox­im­ity to Rus­sia made the fear real, Carey said.

“We knew, if the bal­loon went up, as they said it, that Fair­banks would be a smok­ing ir­ra­di­ated ruin,” Carey said. “The Rus­sians were a re­ally se­ri­ous ad­ver­sary we feared and re­spected. Just the hairdo of our friend Kim, he’s just a sendup. We’re sup­posed to think the fate of Earth is de­ter­mined by North Korea? It might be, but it’s just so eas­ily laughed at.”

Ben Clay­ton, 65, a re­tired An­chor­age fire cap­tain, said he’s not afraid.

“Here’s the deal,” Clay­ton said, as he got a hair­cut at Bunn’s Bar­ber­shop. “We’ve al­ways been within reach of nu­clear weapons, we’ve got some prox­im­ity to some fairly well-known bad ac­tors.”

Alaska has a num­ber of mil­i­tary bases with the pri­mary mis­sion of fend­ing off th­ese kinds of threats, Clay­ton said, not­ing that the bases are strate­gic, their sol­diers and air­men well-prac­ticed. As he spoke, the sharp tri­an­gles of two mil­i­tary fighter jets from Joint Base El­men­dorf-Richard­son thun­dered over­head.

What is un­charted ter­ri­tory, he said, is the diplo­matic style of the na­tion’s cur­rent lead­er­ship in Wash­ing­ton.

“There was a pe­riod of time when I thought the State De­part­ment and the pro­fes­sional diplo­mats and, God help us, the pres­i­dent, could keep it even,” he said. “This is a true po­lit­i­cal black swan event.”

Adak, at the end of the Aleu­tian chain, is Alaska’s west­ern­most town, so far from An­chor­age it’s in an­other time zone. It was once a Navy base, home to thou­sands of peo­ple and spe­cial­ized radar that was part of the coun­try’s mis­sile de­fense sys­tem. The base closed in the 1990s, and about 100 peo­ple live there now. Lo­cals are worked up about a sched­ule change in the is­land’s twice-weekly jet ser­vice. North Korea doesn’t fig­ure.

“You’d have to be pretty crazy to pick Adak as a tar­get,” said Adak res­i­dent Elaine Smiloff. “What’s the re­ward for that?”

On Thurs­day evening, Cipri­ana Wil­liams, 32, cast her line into Ship Creek near down­town An­chor­age, look­ing for sock­eye sal­mon. Her niece Yukari Wil­liams, 5, sat next to her, play­ing games on an iPad.

She said she went fish­ing to get away from the ug­li­ness of the news. There are all kinds of risks in life, she said, es­pe­cially liv­ing in Alaska. An­chor­age had a cat­a­strophic earth­quake in 1964, for ex­am­ple.

“You live here and you love it, but you know at any mo­ment it could be like ’64, and we’re out,” she said. “It’s just like a shake of the dice, I guess.”

An­chor­age, like many cities, has a re­sponse plan for both man­made and nat­u­ral dis­as­ters, said Berkowitz, the mayor. Chances are, if that plan gets ac­ti­vated, it won’t be North Korea that prompts it.

“I’m wor­ried about Juneau’s abil­ity to come up with a fis­cal plan. I’m wor­ried about Wash­ing­ton’s abil­ity to come up with a so­lu­tion on health care,” he said. “Those are things that have more im­pact on peo­ple here.”

PHOTOS BY ASH ADAMS FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Joint Base El­men­dorf-Richard­son, as seen from Arc­tic Val­ley. An­chor­age has a vis­i­ble mil­i­tary pres­ence, and re­tired fire cap­tain Ben Clay­ton said that the nu­mer­ous bases in Alaska have the pri­mary mis­sion of fend­ing off threats.

Cipri­ana Wil­liams fishes at Ship Creek in An­chor­age with her niece. Wil­liams said be­ing hit by an earth­quake like the cat­a­strophic one in An­chor­age in 1964 is more likely than a North Korean mis­sile.

Chris­tine and Zach Ho­man eat ice cream with their sons Le­land, 4, and Colton, 6, at Wild Scoops in An­chor­age. When asked about re­cent spec­u­la­tion that a mis­sile from North Korea could reach Alaska, Chris­tine Ho­man said that it is not a con­cern to her fam­ily. Other Alaskans shared the same sen­ti­ment.

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