Disasters full-time business for some

By Jean Verlich: CNJ news editor

For Ken De Los Santos, the weather is serious business.

“Every day, the first thing I do is check the weather,” the emergency management director for Clovis and Curry County said.

He looks online at storm predictions and receives e-mail and phone call alerts from the National Weather Service.

On Thursday, his weather watching paid off. He received alerts that severe weather was on its way for Friday, with the possibility of hail, strong winds and tornadoes.

At 12:52 p.m. Thursday the emergency management system switch was turned on.

De Los Santos distributed news of the alert to a key list of city and county officials, businesses, media, storm spotters and members of the Local Emergency Planning Committee.

Friday morning when he arrived at the office, he checked his Doppler radar service and saw the chance of tornadoes at 10 percent and chance of hail and strong winds at 20 to 30 percent.

He received an e-mail advising of a slight risk of thunderstorms from 3 p.m. Friday to 3 a.m. Saturday, and hail of up to 2 inches in diameter and wind gusts of 65 mph.

That Friday afternoon, the National Weather Service issued a tornado watch for Curry and Roosevelt counties.

De Los Santos’ staff called more than 20 storm spotters and amateur radio operators who volunteer their weather watching to establish communications.

The police department was alerted in order to assure sufficient personnel would be available in the event of an emergency.

By 6 p.m., a severe thunderstorm warning had been issued for western Curry County.

A similar storm watch scenario was occurring in Roosevelt County, where De Los Santos was tracking two storms moving north toward Curry County.

Milnesand fire chief John Mohan said he was alerted by the National Weather Service around 5:30 p.m. that a severe storm was approaching. He set up on a hill six miles east of Milnesand and watched as the cloud turned meaner looking and he noticed circulation. At 6:05 p.m. he spotted the first funnel touching down. He later learned it had popped down in David and Susie Thomas’ pasture near Milnesand.

Mohan, a certified storm spotter for more than 10 years, moved with the storm on its east side and later heard reports of people seeing a twister touch down from the other side of what he believes was the same cloud bank.

Back in Clovis, De Los Santos called a key protocol list that includes the city and county managers, school officials and first responders.

He was managing from his office until about 7 p.m., with a TV set to the Weather Channel, checking e-mails and online weather reports, and monitoring a weather radio.

And he was linked to a telephone notification service for any type of emergency that also rang an alert.

It was then that he moved underground to an emergency operation center near the downtown fire station. Sirens were sounded about 7:30 within a few minutes of the tornado warning being issued.

About 20 minutes later, reports came through from citizens of a house being destroyed in the southern part of Clovis and a car being hit on U.S. 70.

The Emergency Operations Center was activated in the Clovis Police Department, with Police Chief Dan Blair, Fire Chief Ray Westerman, Mayor David Lansford, City Manager Joe Thomas as well as Salvation Army officials.

De Los Santos said the EOC is comprised of key leaders and elected officials to provide assistance for first responders.

De Los Santos said he got to sleep about 2:30 a.m. and was back on the job at 6 a.m. Saturday.

His assessment of how things went? “Very well,” he said. “We prepared together.”

That preparation included tornado tabletop as well as physical exercises.

“The first time that these people meet each other should not be when a disaster occurs,” De Los Santos said.