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Maine Wants to Stockpile for Y2K
by Declan McCullagh, March 18, 1999

If Belinda Gerry has her way - and Y2K goes terribly wrong - the Maine government will hand each resident some 200 pounds of rice and beans next year. The state legislator proposes spending US$50 million to create a mammoth 13-million-cubic-foot food stash that would feed every Maine resident for months. After the idea was mocked this week by Maine's governor and radio talk show hosts, the legislation's supporters went on the defensive on Thursday. "They'll like rice and beans if there's nothing else to eat," said John Michael, a former state legislator and an advisor to Gerry.

Where will Maine put that mountain of rice and beans? "You put it in the armory or a hangar. You put it wherever you want, really," Michael says. But the magnitude of such a task baffles officials. At current wholesale prices of $20 per hundred pounds, the rice and beans would fill about 5,600 tractor-trailer trucks. If dumped on a football field, the pile would stretch to 36 stories and weigh 124,000 tons. "I do not have enough vacant armory space at this time to absorb that capacity," said General Earl Adams, who oversees the Maine National Guard. Adams says the sprawling 9,482-acre Loring Air Force base, which was closed by the Pentagon a few years ago and lies in northern Maine, is one possibility. "There are many, many buildings there," he said, in addition to a rail line.

Another problem is maintenance. "It is not a cheap endeavor to store $50 million of rice and beans," chuckled Steve Kopperud, vice president of the American Feed Industry Association. "The state of Maine might want to look at the costs of storage." Once the stockpile is created - perhaps in those deserted hangars at the Loring Air Force base - experts say that troops must remain vigilant in guarding it from moisture, rot, and vermin. "This is ridiculous," says Steve Portela, general manager of Walton Feed. "If you buy all this food and you stick it in warehouses, you've got to pay for that. And you've got to pay for upkeep since it'll get bugs in the summer."

Then there is the question of where and how Maine would get that much rice and beans in the first place. "That type of order is probably possible. You'd have to get in line with each rice and bean company in America," said Portela, whose own 164-person company has been busier than ever fulfilling Y2K bulk food orders. Portela says he's talked to Alaskan legislators who had similar plans to create a food stash for the state. But once they learned of the hassles involved, they didn't call back. "I've quoted them, and it's never happened," he says. The bill's supporters show no signs of losing their resolve. Maine suffered a severe ice storm in 1998, and they argue that the latest plan is good insurance that the state's population of 1.3 million will stay well-fed in the event of Y2K - or any other disruption. "We are not prepared for disasters in any way," says Michael, who said his girlfriend was forced to check into an emergency shelter during the ice storm. "Every state quite frankly should have two or three months [worth of food stashed away]."

Critics say individuals, not government officials, should be the ones deciding to prepare. "The idea just sound nuts," said Ed Hudgins, director of regulatory studies at the Cato Institute. "It seems like a panic over a threat that may or may not occur. What happens if the disaster doesn't occur?" But if Y2K comes in with a fizzle, not a bang, Maine will keep the rice and beans around, just in case. The bill says the food must be "replaced with a new supply before perishable items become unsuitable for consumption or be liquidated." And, besides, the bill does say "rice, beans, or other food storable for at least one year." While the measure still seems unlikely to pass -- it would, after all, use two-thirds of the state's fiscal year 2000 budget surplus -- it's headed for a hearing in the legislature on 8 April.

If Gerry prevails, the governor says he'll be ready. "We'd have to work with some of the big chains and supermarkets to figure out how they do it. I really don't know," says Dennis Bailey, a spokesman for governor Angus S. King, Jr. "It would be a big operation. It would be an effort to do it."