By Darrell Todd Maurina
New Mexico hasn’t had a tornado fatality since 1974, but severe wind and tornado damage have hit Clovis as recently as the late 1990s. Wednesday morning at Clovis’ city hall, 27 representatives of local law enforcement, government, school, fire, military, communications, utilities, and transportation agencies met to discuss how they would handle a major tornado should one strike Clovis.
“All we can do for tornadoes and natural hazards is just to be prepared, but by practicing what could happen it is greatly beneficial,” said Ken De Los Santos, emergency management director for the City of Clovis and Curry County.
De Los Santos said a key part of the test was to see how different agencies would communicate in a disaster and what procedures they follow.
“If the first time we meet someone is at the incident it is not as good,” De Los Santos said. “One of the things we were testing was the communications between the first responders and interagency communications.”
Other methods were used to remind people sitting in an office that disasters are deadly.
“We had photos to get everyone in the mood, and graphs of what was going on,” said De Los Santos, who indicated that a special committee had worked for several months to make the disaster as challenging as possible.
“The exercise scenario was we had a tornado hit La Casita Elementary and the Bruce King Complex for the state police and department of motor vehicles,” De Los Santos said. “The tornado started near the stockyards, destroyed some of the seed companies there, destroyed some homes, we had lots of causalities and injuries. Also because the railroad was there, there was some diesel fuel spillage as well so that was a hazardous materials incident, and we had of course power outages and cell phone towers being knocked out and street flash flooding.”
To make things worse, the tornado scenario called for La Casita Elementary to be hit at 2:50 p.m., when students were getting out of school and parents were waiting for their children.
“We talked to the schools … we asked their input on how they prepare their children for a tornado warning and what their response would be if one of the schools were hit,” said Terri Marney of Plains Regional Medical Center, an exercise evaluator and chairwoman of the exercise design committee.
The scenario threw in not only damage caused by the disaster but also human complications. Police had to call sheriff’s deputies for crowd control as frantic parents converged on the school to find their children and more crowds showed up at the hospital. Dispatching them proved to be a problem when two dispatchers announced they were overwhelmed and went home to check on their families. That wasn’t the only human failure in the system: as local and national media converged on the scene, the public information officer became violently ill due to stress and needed to be replaced.
While the fictional humans in the scenario felt overwhelmed, Marney said the agency heads at Wednesday’s meeting did not.
“Communication was very good; everybody pretty much referred to the emergency operations plan,” Marney said. “A lot of people may have a policy and procedure book, but they forget about it in a disaster, but it seemed like the city knew its plans well and followed them.”