Week Six: What's happening in Oklahoma City

A belated contribution to the World Without Oil game at http://worldwithoutoil.org . This is a work of fiction that imagines what we would be doing here in Oklahoma City about 6 weeks into a serious oil shock that is rapidly leading to absolute shortages of fossil fuels and electricity blackouts.

This thing has been going on for six weeks now, and it is not getting any better. Here in Oklahoma City, we're probably better off than most, gas is a little cheaper here than elsewhere, but that doesn't mean people aren't hurting. The calls for food assistance to our Catholic Worker House have tripled this past month, but last Saturday we had only 1/3 our usual number of volunteers show up to deliver the food. I'm starting to think that I need to contact some bicycle clubs to see if we can organize bike deliveries. We could deliver to central locations in various parts of the city, where we would be met by folks with bikes to take the groceries to the addresses in those areas. One issue is - we would need a lot of bicycle carts. I've downloaded a dozen sets of plans off the internet and we've been talking about which would be best for our purposes.

In the meantime, besides delivery, we have another problem, and that is food to give out to the poor. Our delivery this month from the Regional Food Bank was half its usual amount. Instead of about 14 tons of food, we received 7 at the Dorothy Day Center. This is scary - our food deliveries this month consisted of: 2 lb bag of rice, 2 lb bag of beans, 2 cans of green beans, 2 cans of corn, 2 ramen packages, a 12 ounce can of spaghetti sauce, 5 lbs of whole wheat flour, and 5 lbs of bulgar wheat. We wouldn't have those last 2 items if we hadn't bought that commercial flour mill last year, and made arrangements to get wheat directly from farmers. We grind our own flour and we process the bulgar in the church kitchen, cracking it with the mill.

We also made 25,000 copies of our "Printable Flyers" that I wrote a couple of years ago. A printer we know agreed to do them for us if we would help provide labor and bought the paper. So we went over there one night and helped him print them for us after he had closed for the day. His business is way down, and is thinking about closing in a week or two.

The Printable Flyers are online at http://www.energyconservationinfo.org/printflyers.htm . This is one of our websites that promotes energy conservation, and it is getting a lot of hits these days. They are basic how-to instructions for coping with severely challenging circumstances. We're handing out the full set, since we don't know how far down this is going to go. Everyone who asks for groceries gets a set, and so does every church and school in town and we invite everybody to make their own copies and hand them out. We've also reprinted our Better Times Almanac of Useful Information, 25,000 copies in tabloid newspaper format. It's also online and has been getting a lot of traffic lately at http://www.bettertimesinfo.org/2004index.htm .

We're scheduling classes at churches and schools in the areas where we deliver groceries, on how to use the whole wheat products we are delivering. We hope to have cornmeal later this year, as we have made a deal with a farmer to grow some corn for us. We will have to make a novena to Sts. Isidore and Maria (patrons of farmers) for the harvest this year. I told Marcus that we needed to go ahead and buy as much wheat as we could just as soon, as the harvest is coming in and if this continues, demand for help is going to go through the roof.

We're suggesting that people combine households, move in with each other, especially small households with only one or two people. The way things are going, keeping a household going with only one or two people isn't going to work well. Inflation is running up prices, rents are going up, we're headed for a big spike in foreclosures. I've been getting calls from people I know are middle class and even upper middle class about assistance in meeting mortgage payments. We've had to turn all of those down. I tell them to move in with their parents, but there is a lot of denial.

The board of the Oklahoma Food Coop ( http://www.oklahomafood.coop ) has been working with our Producer Care Committee to contact all of our producers to see how their situation is. Everything we sell is grown or made in the state of Oklahoma, so our supply lines are shorter than the industrial food system, but organizing and supplying a "surge" of demand will be a challenge. We've got a lot of cash right now, we had 1000 new members join over the last 2 weeks, so that's over $50,000 in share revenue. We decided to use some of that money to refurbish one of the "freezer rooms" at our operations center, which used to be the Canadian Valley Meat Plant. We plan to offer our meat producers storage. They can save fuel if they only have to show up when they process some meat. The coop volunteers will prep the producers' orders each month, and the coop will make a little higher commission on those orders. That's going to save them a lot of fuel.

The Oklahoma Food Coop's order this month is huge. Thank God the largest certified organic farmer in the state is a member of our Coop. He has 5,000 acres and managed to get the fuel to harvest it. Instead of selling it out of state, they are planning to store it on the farm and sell it in state. Members of the coop ordered 5 tons of wheat this month in 25 lb bags. The board decided to up our weight limit to 50 lbs this month, as the 25 lb bags can hold 50, so he can consolidate some orders and thus use less bags. He's worried about resupply of those bags since he's been told it will be a month or so before they can ship more. We may end up requiring our members to bring their own buckets and weighing out the grain at each of the pick-up sites. Moving bulk grain to 32 pick-up sites is not something I am looking forward to.

With 2,000 members, we're going to eventually need at least 12,000 bushels - that's 365 tons - to provide each of our members with 1 lb of flour/day for one year. That's one loaf of bread, or 18 or so biscuits. That sounds like a lot, but if we don't have much else to eat, then it's barely enough. It can also be processed into bulgar, and we may do some of that since that makes whole wheat a lot easier to deal with in the home kitchen. And at the rate we're growing, by the end of the summer we may have 4,000 members. Which would be 24,000 bushels, or 730 tons. We may have to find a train somewhere, in fact, talking to some of the "short-line" railroads that operate on state-owned tracks around Oklahoma City would be a good idea.

The food coop's operations center has a 2 acre "parking lot", only acre is actually paved and used by us. The rest is in Johnson grass and other miscellaneous urban vegetation. Last Saturday we had a work day and a hundred coop members turned up to start prepping it to grow food. It's too late for the cool season crops, but we can plant all of the summer and warm season stuff. We're going to sell them through the coop, but those who help do the work will get priority.

We are going heavy in the direction of pumpkins and winter squash. The winter squash we are growing on vertical trellises. We are going with the squash because we think we will have enough wheat and corn and probably also soybeans to feed everybody for a year. In fact, there's probably enough wheat and soybeans in the state to feed everybody if it is diverted from the cattle feedlots to human consumption. But we are going to be short on other nutrients. Winter squash and pumpkins are like comfort food, they pack lots of nutrition, AND they keep well. I've kept butternut squash for as long as 6 months without having it rot. Organic veggies in fact do keep longer.

Anyway, we are also promoting home and market gardening. That's a no-brainer.

I worry all this will be too little, too late, but this was why I started the Catholic Worker House in 1999 and the Oklahoma Food Coop in 2003. With the Catholic Worker house, we have contacts throughout the religious community and the low income neighborhoods. With the Oklahoma Food Coop, we have some infrastructure in place to jump start a local food system. I wish all this had held off for a couple more years, but oh well, at least we are where we are now and aren't starting from square one.

Below is the text of a new printable flyer we have written specifically for this crisis.


1. Be a leader in your neighborhood. Nature abhors a vacuum, and if existing leadership fades or can't be exercised in your area, SOMEBODY will claim leadership. Look within yourself to find reserves of strength that will help you step forward. Give people useful information and pratical/useful things to do in a calm and authoritative manner. When people are panicked, the thing they want most is to be told what to do by an authoritative voice. Hand out copies of our Disaster Printable Flyers. Worry less about meetings, and be concerned more about starting projects.

2. Organize security. Raise a neighborhood "militia", in the old traditional sense of the word. Decide on the boundaries of your "urban village". Look for police officers and members of the armed forces who live in you neighborhood, or who are retired, to provide leadership.

3. Organize community food security.

+ Set up a community kitchen and get people involved. Build what you need (outdoor cooking areas, bread ovens, etc.).

+ Get your neighbors preparing every yard for planting (depending on the time of the year).

+ Assess fruit and nut trees in the neighborhood.

+ Find expedient materials and make planting boxes for sidewalks, streets, and driveways, fill them with straw, leaves, grass clippings, compost, potting soil. Take cuttings from existing edible landscaping and start rooting them.

+Assess available foods that could be planted, such as potatoes and dried beans/peas and the seeds from winter squashes and pumpkins in the stores.. Even if these are from hybrid varieties, if you have no other seed source, you will get a harvest, it just won't necessarily be identical to what you have planted.

+ Organize food preservation activities (e.g. salting or canning meats, dehydrating vegetables and fruits). The principle here is "everybody works". Even the elderly and disabled and children can do something.

4. Organize water collection. The city's water supplies may eventually go down. Get ready for that right now! Nearly everybody will have a roof, and so you need structures to collect rainwater. If nothing else, dig pits and line them with plastic or something else impermeable. Kids swimming pools would be great. As long as the city's water supply is working, fill every container possible. Get a book on ferrocement for your library (you can build water tanks with that knowledge). Find out if there are any wells in the area. Assume that all water is unsafe unless you know otherwise, and filter and/or boil it. Plans for a slow sand filter would be very useful.

5. Organize sanitation. If city water goes, so will the city sewer system. Compost human waste as long as you have enough dry material to mix it with. Collect urine and dilute it with water (1 part urine to 10 parts water) and use that to fertilize gardens. Site human waste composting facilities away water collection structures or wells. Recycle all other trash. Stop using disposable diapers as there is no practical way to dispose of them outside of the present industrial landfill system.

6. Help people develop alternative living arrangements. The most useful thing for most people will be to increase the size of their household, e.g., two or three families move in together, and then scavenge the other 2 houses for useful materials. The insulation of two houses, and the dry wall or other wall materials, could be pulled out and installed in the third. It will take a while for this necessity to sink in to peoples' consciousness, but if the situation continues to devolve, people will be more willing to take these extreme measures.

7. Grain elevators are located around Oklahoma City. You need one pound of wheat per person, per day. While you still have fuel, and if it is safe to travel, go to these locations and trade for additional food supplies. Organize this by neighborhoods.

8. Send "missionaries" to neighboring neighborhoods and encourage them to follow your example. Give them copies of your printable flyers.

9. Develop a way to spread news and summon help. A manual typewriter and a hand crank mimeograph with paper, ink, and some duplicating masters would be very useful. Most neighborhoods could probably put together an old fashioned gelatin hectograph (find the older school teachers, they used to do this all the time) from what they have on hand (gelatin, mineral oil, tattoo inks, paper). Community bulletin boards will be important. One idea for summoning help is a series of flags -- red (I need help), green (everything fine here). If people need help, they hang out a red flag, when a neighborhood patrol goes by (which you have organized), they stop and see what's up. Bells and whistles can also be used. More advanced ideas would be a series of semaphore stations to move info quickly from one side of the neighborhood to others (elevated perches -- on houses, telephone poles? - using flags or lights (at night) or mirrors (light flashes during the day) to send messages, a knowledge of morse code and semaphore protocols would be handy). Find the ham radio operators in the area. CBs are another possibility. Start a flea market in a parking lot and publicize it to surrounding areas.

10. Network with surrounding neighborhoods, and as things develop, organize expeditions into farm country bordering your city to make deals with farmers. With fuel being an issue, a lot of farm work will have to be done by human workers, especially at harvest. Trade labor for food. Also, trade knowledge/expertise for food. Bring animals back to town the old fashioned way, on foot.

11. Organize medical care. Find doctors/nurses/paramedics, others with health care training. Folks who are medically fragile may be early casualties as medicines run out and machines fail. Organize burial of the dead with dignity including whatever religious rites are appropriate.

12. Don't forget our needs for entertainment and socializing. Find musicians, actors, story tellers and put them to work. Every week have a dance. Encourage churches and other religious groups to continue to meet, even if their clergy are not in the area or otherwise unavailable. Use existing networks of clubs and religious organizations in the community to build capacities for survival.

13. Make arrangements for child care and schooling. The schools may not reopen this coming fall, and parents will need to be working on gardening and other neighborhood infrastructure projects.

14. Don't leave anyone behind for the wolves to devour. You will get further by cooperating with each other than by competing for scarce resources. Be wary of our common tendency to resort to bad habits and behaviors while under stress.