One critical from tornado, about 100 buildings damaged

A tornado that struck before 8 p.m. Friday caused extensive damage throughout southeast Clovis. Clovis Body Shop, 2024 S. Prince St., was among the hardest hit businesses. (CNJ Correspondent Photo: Roger Hatcher)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Throngs of Clovis residents waded through tatters of their lives Saturday as officials plodded to piece together a broken town.

Casey and Alanda LeClear stood with their hands clasped in their Brady Avenue yard. Behind them, family members heaved wooden beams, insulation and shingles from their ruined home into the bed of a truck.

A mattress shielded the couple and their two young sons from the tornado that ripped through southeast Clovis on Friday night.

“That’s the only thing that saved us,” Alanda, 25, said of the mattress.

The twister that touched down at 7:54 p.m. toppled motor homes and wreaked havoc in patches of east and south Clovis. Moving northeast, the storm left 35 injured, including one critically.

Names of the injured were not released.

Plains Regional Medical Center Chief Operating Nurse Liz Crouch said four of the five people admitted to the hospital Friday remained there Saturday. One was listed in critical condition and another was transferred to a Lubbock hospital, Crouch said.

Betty Denton of Clovis said her mother, 90-year-old Heleneta Blevins, was critically wounded by the tornado.

She said her mother lived in a trailer on South Prince Street that is now demolished. Her brother, who was also in the trailer, was injured, too.

“The tornado picked them both up,” said Denton on Saturday, flanked by friends and family outside the hospital.

She said her mother was unresponsive Saturday.

“We love her. We know God will take her,” she said.

“This feels like hell,” she said. “It’s not an easy thing.”

Roads remained closed into Saturday night, including U.S. 70 to Portales, and downed power lines snaked through pockets of the city, Clovis officials said.

About 1,000 homes remained without power late Saturday, according to Clovis Xcel Energy engineer Terry Randall.

He said roughly 60 power lines were knocked down by the storm. Portions of Clovis may remain without electricity for at least three days, Clovis officials said.

About 100 homes and businesses received major damage in Friday’s storm, officials said.

“I feel like I’m in a dream,” said Clovis resident Martha Valadez, who huddled underneath a table with her pregnant daughter Friday as the tornado tore through her east Clovis neighborhood.

The windows of her home burst and a tree smashed through her living room. She spent Saturday cleaning up the mess.

Her neighborhood and others filled with good Samaritans who hauled away debris and offered food and drink.

“It’s our duty,” said Eric Uranga, 24, of Clovis, who combed the streets of Clovis with members of his church to distribute water and offer help.

Clovis officials declared the city in a state of emergency Saturday.

Director of the New Mexico Emergency Operation Center Jeff Phillips said Gov. Bill Richardson endorses releasing state funds for disaster relief in Clovis.

Damage assessments were still under way Saturday evening and the exact number of homes and businesses damaged or destroyed in Clovis was not known.

State officials were still assessing damage, “house by house,” Saturday afternoon, Phillips said. Obtaining federal aid for Clovis depends on the extent of the damage, Phillips said.

“Public grounds — roads, easements — seem to be in good shape,” he said.

He said he would not speculate on the extent of damage Saturday.

Clovis City Manager Joe Thomas said “complete recovery” from the storm would likely take months.

The city of Clovis condemned two Mabry Drive businesses and another 50 to 60 buildings were declared OK to enter, but too dangerous to occupy, according to Clovis Building and Safety Director Pete Wilt.

One city building, the Baxter-Curren Senior Citizen Center, was damaged, Wilt said.

Two schools, Yucca Junior High and Lockwood Elementary, were severely damaged, according to Clovis officials. Parkview Elementary School sustained minimal damages, they said. Clovis Municipal Schools dismissed for spring break on Friday and classes resume April 2.

The Salvation Army sheltered six people Friday night at the Clovis High School Rock Staubus Gymnasium. The shelter shuttered early Saturday, with 15 families shuffled to local hotels. The Salvation Army remained stationed at the gym Saturday to provide food and assistance, according to Clovis Salvation Army Capt. Tammy Ray.

Countless more would need shelter if not “for neighbors helping neighbors,” Ray said.

Richardson also ordered about 20 soldiers from the New Mexico Army National Guard to provide support in Clovis. The soldiers will help assess property and business damage under the direction of the Clovis Police Department, said spokesman Maj. Kenneth Nava.

Richardson is slated to arrive today in Clovis.

A few residential electric water wells also stopped Saturday, Randall said.

The agriculture industry was also hit hard by the tornado. Scores of cows were dead in Roosevelt County and a handful died in Curry County, according to officials. Two horses were also found dead in Curry County and livestock wandered outside torn fences, Phillips said.

Thirteen twisters touched down Friday in New Mexico, according to the National Weather Service.

“These storms were coming in just like freight trains,” Albuquerque National Weather Service senior forecaster Tim Shy said.

They moved from south to north along the border of New Mexico and Texas, he said.

One tornado touched down in Quay County, five in Lea County, four in Roosevelt County, and two in Eddy County, Shy said.