Storm recovery joint effort

Courtesy photo: Jerry Priest Jerry and James Priest’s house in south Clovis — built in 1923 — was destroyed in the tornado.

By Janet Bresenham: Freedom New Mexico

The first anniversary of the March 23, 2007, tornado that struck eastern New Mexico with such destructive force falls on Easter Sunday.

For some people involved in helping survivors rebuild their lives and homes in the tornado’s aftermath, that seems fitting, said the Rev. Lance Clemmons, chairman of the Clovis-based Eastern New Mexico Disaster Recovery Council.

“Those of us who have worked all year to help tornado survivors look at the first anniversary being the same day as Easter as a wonderful thing because the Resurrection is all about new life and that’s what the council has been doing — helping people rebuild new lives,” said Clemmons, who also serves as pastor of First Presbyterian Church.

When the full force of last year’s tornado hit Clovis, thousands of people suddenly had unexpected and immediate needs.

In the aftermath, thousands more wanted to help in any way they could.

Putting them together to meet long-term needs caused by the tornado that were not being met by any other agency led to the formation by dozens of faith-based and community-based organizations of the Eastern N.M. Disaster Recovery Council within the first few weeks after the disaster, Clemmons said.

Initially, the teams assisting tornado survivors and those whose homes were damaged or destroyed came from the Salvation Army, the American Red Cross and those practiced in rescue, recovery and emergency response for disasters.

“Immediately after a disaster, we’re concerned with helping people get something to eat, clothes on their backs and a safe place to be,” said Scott Snyder, the Albuquerque-based director of emergency services for the Middle Rio Grande (N.M.) Chapter of the American Red Cross.

Snyder, who served as Red Cross operations director for the tornado emergency response the day it hit eastern New Mexico and Parmer County in West Texas, said he had personnel on the ground in Logan and Quay County helping victims there when the Clovis tornado hit. So he turned to the Salvation Army to take the lead in arranging emergency shelter and some of the other immediate needs of victims in Clovis.

Capt. Tammy Ray, Salvation Army Corps Officer in Clovis, said about 20 Salvation Army personnel and nearly 3,000 volunteers helped serve more than 12,000 meals and more than 33,000 snacks and bottles of water; distribute 118 gift cards for immediate needs and arrange motel rooms and other shelter for those suddenly displaced by the tornado.

The Salvation Army also served as the central point for donations of needed items such as clothing and furniture, Ray said.

Meanwhile, without duplicating efforts, more than 100 American Red Cross paid and volunteer workers kept busy assessing 742 residential dwellings in Curry, Quay, Roosevelt and Parmer counties for levels of damage; driving to neighborhoods hit by the tornado to hand out clean-up tools, such as rakes, shovels, work gloves, garbage bags, hammers and nails; and distributing vouchers for clothing, food and up to $500-per-person for building repair materials for immediate needs, according to Snyder.

At the same time, city and county government crews, along with scores of volunteers from Cannon Air Force Base and the local communities also were putting in long hours assisting the clean-up and recovery efforts.

Once tornado victims’ immediate needs were met and various agencies began realizing the scope of the needs that might not be met by the Federal Emergency Management Agency or other branches of government, they decided to organize and determine which resources and skills each could bring to the table to help tornado victims over the long haul, Clemmons said.

Erinn Burch, director of United Way of Eastern New Mexico, said United Way served as one of many members of the Eastern N.M. Disaster Recovery Council and the fiscal agent but was not the lead agency.

“The Disaster Recovery Council helped open and shut more than 200 cases during the past year,” Burch said. “The council decided to address the human needs that were left unmet. We tried to use community resources whenever they were already available through various organizations and then help with other needs through our donations.”

The Church World Service provided immediate advice to the Disaster Recovery Council and helped them with the need to put together a longterm recovery group, Burch said. Lutheran, Catholic and other faith-based charities helped the council set up effective case management and locate grants and additional sources of funding, she added.

Individual donations of more than $140,000 from the local community have helped meet a variety of otherwise unmet needs during the past year, from replacing a single-wide mobile home for one individual to helping others get electric service restored to their homes, Clemmons said.
The council even helped several families who were scammed by a few unscrupulous building contractors, Clemmons said.

Now, one year later, the Disaster Recovery Council is planning to dissolve soon because it has served its purpose, members said.

However, the lessons learned and the organizational cooperation will stand the test of time and provide valuable resources and experiences for the community’s future, Burch said.