Three years later, scars of tornado remain

File photo Residents that were victims of the tornado attempted to make sense of the devastation the next day by taking inventory of what they could find.

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

Jim Blevins refers to his home and neighborhood as ground zero. The tornado that ripped through it is three years gone. The daily reminders aren’t.

Jim and Iris Blevins’ home on South Prince Street was in the path of the March 23, 2007, tornado that killed two — Jim’s 90-year-old mother, Heleneta Blevins, and 90-year-old Walter Cravy — and damaged more than 500 homes and businesses in the Clovis area.

The National Weather Service reported at least 16 twisters were spotted on the Texas-New Mexico border that night. The one that hit Clovis was officially recorded as an F2, which means wind speeds were greater than 113 mph.

The Grande Vida Dairy in Roosevelt County sustained the first major hit. Dairy owner Mike Mitchell estimated damage at more than $2.7 million. He said more than 300 cattle were ultimately lost to the weather and it took him four months to rebuild.

Weather officials said the storm was strongest when it hit the dairy, but it still packed a powerful punch when the tornado touched down in Clovis at 7:54 p.m.

Wrapped in rain, it knocked out power for about 12 hours across more than a third of the city. Debris strewn across U.S. 70 forced its closure until the next morning. The two deaths were the first caused by a tornado in Clovis’ 103 years of existence.

Local Emergency Planning Director Ken De Los Santos said between $7 and $8 million in local, state and federal money was spent along with an unknown amount of funds from private individuals and organizations.

De Los Santos said in looking back and reviewing the tornado, the emergency systems, the response and the aftercare clicked and things flowed smoothly.

Responders from multiple agencies were on scene quickly and communication and organization fell into place as it should, he said. And everyone seemed to know what they needed to do and where they needed to be.

“One of the first beneficial things was that we had practiced,” he said. “We had been working together for a long time.”

A local state of emergency was declared almost immediately; within two days the governor was on location and had declared a state of emergency. Shortly after a federal state of emergency was declared, paving the way for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies to come in to the community and help.

The community was even commended by FEMA and other agencies for the efficient way it dealt with the disaster.

Local planners and responders still review and use the tornado as a response guide, he said, explaining the success of the response was unusual in an environment where things can often go wrong or run into problems.

The list of ways the response could have been improved is fairly short, he said.

Officials now know they need more backup power supplies for radio stations and the local weather site, and they realized they needed updated contact lists for the key personnel with non-government agencies that assist in emergencies.

“There were a lot of positive things. (It was because of) the teamwork of a lot of people working together,” De Los Santos said.

“Everything clicked beautifully. That doesn’t always happen.”

But the destruction and the lasting results of the tornado can still be seen in pockets of the community where people have struggled to rebuild their homes and lives.

Jim Blevins is one of those.

“I don’t ever want to go through it again,” he said Friday, pointing out that high winds and flickering lights send him back to that frightful night.

Blevins had gone out in the storm to his mother’s nearby mobile home to check on her and was heading to her kitchen to get them something to drink when it hit.

“I remember the hissing, the explosion and the next thing I remember was the rain,” he said. “I thought, ‘Well gee, I’m dead’.”

Blevins said he woke in a mud hole outside, disoriented and confused.

Heleneta Blevins died four days later from injuries she suffered in the tornado.

The loss of his mother was compounded by the damage his own home received, lifted by the tornado.

The retired railroader and his wife took up residence in a fifth wheel on their property while they waited for the insurance settlement needed to repair their home.

But it wasn’t enough.

Three years later, the $60,000 payment they received was enough to make three rooms habitable and they are again living in their house.

But the repairs needed are estimated between $150,000 and $200,000

Blevins said he plans to come out of retirement to make repairing the house possible.

He is resigned to move forward.

“What else can you do but feed the chickens and gather the eggs?” he said.