Training, education keys to disaster response

CNJ staff photo: Tony Bullocks Firefighters Cody Bell, left, and Weldon Kube inspect a new emergency tool Friday provided by an emergency management grant according to Chief Ray Westerman. The device works much like the Jaws of Life, which can cut through steel.

By Chris Schmaedeke: Freedom New Mexico

While local counties don’t have to deal with tragedy on the scale of the earthquake in Haiti, they must be prepared for tornadoes, severe weather and the possibility of an agriculture disaster.

Curry and Roosevelt counties also face the possibility of ice storms and grass fires. The counties use training to keep citizens safe.

“We try to approach all of these types of hazards,” said Keith Wattenbarger, emergency management director for Portales and Roosevelt County. “We look at the hazards and try to prevent them.”

Wattenbarger said if an emergency is not preventable, how fire, police and other emergency services respond and recover is just as important.

In late October, Roosevelt County performed a functional tabletop exercise at Eastern New Mexico University. The exercise was to prepare for the an agricultural disaster that could occur.

“Foot-and-mouth disease was the emergency that we simulated,” Wattenbarger said. “Our findings show that we are ready for this kind of disaster.”

The New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management has divided the state into six areas. Area 1, which includes Curry, Roosevelt, Quay, Lea, Eddy, Chaves, Lincoln, De Baca and Guadalupe counties, took part in the exercise at ENMU.

“The scenario was develop a strategy for this kind of emergency,” Wattenbarger said.

The six-hour drill was to teach counties how to communicate with the local law enforcement, the public and the media through emails, text messages and phone calls. Notifying agencies was the main objective of the exercise.

While Curry County officials were unable to participate in the exercise, the county officials believe they are prepared for an agricultural disaster.

“We were unavailable at that time because we were giving flu shots at the schools,” said Ken De Los Santos, emergency management director of Curry County and the city of Clovis. “But I feel we are prepared.”

One of the main disasters that affect the counties is the threat of severe weather and tornadoes.

In March 2007, a tornado touched down in Clovis and Portales, killing two and damaging more than 100 homes and businesses. It was a wakeup call for Curry County.

De Los Santos said the county has taken much needed steps to make sure the public is ready for any kind of storm. They’ve made communication and education top priorities.

“We have weather service and storm spotter training,” De Los Santos said. “This gives the public a chance to be informed.”

In March the cities of Clovis and Portales will start storm spotter training. This training is open to the public and will teach citizens what to look for if severe weather may occur.

Training in Clovis will take place at city hall. De Los Santos said times and dates will be announced.

Wattenbarger said he believes Roosevelt is ready for storm season as well.

“We have updated our sirens and notification system,” he said. “We are in good shape.”