FEMA: State’s response superb

Residents of a neighborhood off South Prince Street watch Wednesday as a K. Barnet construction vehicle piles rubble from a house that was demolished earlier that day. (CNJ staff photo: Andy DeLisle)

By Kevin Wilson: CNJ staff writer

Officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency told a crowd of Clovis officials Wednesday they weren’t sure when, or if, the state would receive help from FEMA in recovery from Friday’s tornadoes that slammed eastern New Mexico.

They seemed quite sure, however, if FEMA funds are denied, it won’t be because of poor planning in the wake of the most destructive tornadoes to hit the New Mexico communities.

“We feel like the state of New Mexico and the cities that were affected have done a tremendous job in planning and getting all of this coordinated,” said Kimball Pease, a public information officer with FEMA.

Still, the communities will be in a holding pattern as they await a possible disaster declaration.

“What I learned after visiting with several folks this morning is we have expectations,” Clovis Mayor David Lansford said. “What we need to do — as individuals and as agencies and as members of the community — is to make sure our expectations are not too low or too high. We don’t know how long this process is going to take before the president makes a decision.”

At least 16 tornadoes swept through areas along the New Mexico-Texas border late Friday, damaging homes, roads and businesses, and snapping power lines. Clovis and Logan were the hardest hit.

In the meantime, local and national agencies are working to help citizens affected by the tornadoes.

Mac McNell, a public information officer with the American Red Cross, said the organization was concerned about low number of registrations so far.

McNell said by FEMA estimates, he had counted 250 affected residents in Clovis. As of Wednesday afternoon, roughly 80 people had registered with the Red Cross for assistance.

FEMA covers needs not met by insurance, Pease said.

“They don’t know because the word’s not getting out enough for some reason,” McNell said. “Maybe they’re afraid of us, thinking they may have to pay for us. People have to realize with or without a disaster, our services are free.”

About 500 homes and businesses were damaged in the Clovis area, officials said.

A Roosevelt County dairy, where about 175 cattle were killed, sustained heavy damage and about 30 homes were destroyed in Logan.

The Red Cross has set up shop at the Curry County Fairgrounds, within walking distance for many affected by the most devastating tornado in Curry County history. The staff of approximately 40 is available from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and can help with client case work, monetary assistance in limited cases, and referrals to agencies when work falls outside of the Red Cross’ abilities.

They ask residents to bring some form of identification — a driver’s license or even a piece of mail — or somebody who can vouch for them if there’s no other way to prove identification.

“We can work with them,” McNell said. “We don’t turn anybody down, but we need to justify (to our donors) the money we give them.”

Erinn Burch, executive director of the United Way of Eastern New Mexico, said getting people registered through the Red Cross and the Salvation Army was the biggest priority.

As for other information, Burch hopes some questions can get answered during town hall meetings Friday — 1 p.m. at Parkview Elementary and 3 p.m. at Lockwood Elementary.

“The whole purpose of those meetings is to give the community a chance to hear from the city, county and everyone else with an update on the disaster relief so far,” Burch said. “It’s just really so that everybody does feel like they got an answer.”
As far as an answer on aid, FEMA’s officials couldn’t say.

Pease said two teams — one that evaluated Clovis, and one that evaluated Logan and Portales — were meeting Wednesday afternoon to combine information into a report that was expected at the FEMA regional office in Denton, Texas, this morning. The report was also sent to Gov. Bill Richardson, who according to a City of Clovis press release, will sign the disaster declaration this morning in Santa Fe.

At the earliest, Pease said, the report would likely reach Washington, D.C., by Monday. Though he wouldn’t estimate when it would get to President George W. Bush, he said the report and its contents are highly anticipated.

“We do know that your governor, both of your U.S. Senators and Congressman (Tom) Udall were in Washington this morning and they had (FEMA) Director (David) Paulson’s ear requesting quick action whenever they got that report,” Pease said. “That report is extremely important and I’m sure the presence of the governor in Washington is going to speed things up.”

While the state waits, its congressional delegation has sent letters to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development and the Small Business Administration for aid.

“These tornadoes tore through dozens of homes, turning lives and livelihoods upside-down,” Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said in a joint press release from the delegation. “We are aggressively searching for any and all federal assistance available to help these New Mexico families get through this difficult time and begin the process of rebuilding.”

The differences in the tornadoes that hit Logan and Clovis won’t be a factor in the decision because an emergency declaration would be for the state. If anything, Clovis’ chances for recovery money may be aided by the situation in Logan.

“It’s a matter of scale,” said Bill Ewing, a recovery unit manager with the state Department of Public Safety. “(Logan’s) a relatively small community, less than 1,000 people. About 40 percent of their community was damaged, and much less than 40 percent of Clovis was damaged. They were hurt big-time. There are a lot of recovery costs, and the people there are relatively lower income (than Clovis).”

Ewing was part of the team that did evaluations in Logan and Portales, and he said the difference between his Saturday morning and Tuesday afternoon visits were vast.

“It’s amazing to see how the community pulls together and supports each other,” Ewing said. “Disaster does that to people. We were just up there yesterday, they had most of it cleaned up already. Saturday, debris was all over the place.”

Richardson already signed an executive order freeing up $750,000 in state emergency funds for the three counties.