By Darrell Todd Maurina: CNJ staff writer
Emergency personnel from throughout Curry County met Wednesday to plan for a disaster they hope will never happen.
In their scenario, a tornado appeared over the skies of southwest Clovis, touching down and destroying half of Plains Regional Medical Center and half of Sandia Elementary. Curry County Emergency Management Director Ken De Los Santos asked 35 representatives of local agencies including 24 first responders how they would respond to each stage of the developing crisis.
The answers, participants learned, weren’t always immediately obvious.
“It was like saying, ‘Hey, we just dropped a hydrogen bomb on Clovis, what do you do?’” said Local Emergency Planning Committee member Bob Baker.
“It was really too big and overwhelming of a need to respond,” Baker said. “It makes you feel you are kind of unfaithful to your duties and you know there is nothing you can do to help.”
Capt. Leon Morris of the Clovis Police Department said the two hours allotted for the disaster simulation wasn’t enough and the simulation revealed the limited ability of local agencies to handle a major disaster that shut down the hospital.
“I think everybody would agree we were over-tasked,” Morris said. “We didn’t get halfway through the exercise, and I think in the future we need to scale it down.”
“We found out very quickly we were overwhelmed with what came at us,” said Terri Marney of Plains Regional Medical Center.
De Los Santos said that while the participants couldn’t complete the tornado exercise, that wasn’t necessarily a problem and helped alert local planners to a potential weakness in local medical facilities. While Clovis once had a number of hospitals, the closest hospitals in other towns are now either 25 minutes away in Portales or even farther away in Amarillo or Lubbock.
“It was interesting to find out how rapidly the local hospitals and medical facilities were overwhelmed,” De Los Santos said. “We hit the hospital and a school, but really anywhere you hit it is going to overwhelm the community’s resources and that was very evident by first responders calling other agencies as soon as they could.”
Besides discussing the tornado exercise, the agenda for Wednesday’s meeting included preparations for real-life disasters. Baker reported that eight of Curry County’s 62 businesses with hazardous materials have failed to respond to repeated requests for a legally mandated disclosure of what hazards they have on their premises.
“The plan at the moment is we are trying our best to work with these people,” Baker said, but noted that the state may at some point have to levy fines.
According to De Los Santos, that decision will have to be made by the state office of emergency management. De Los Santos said the fines could range up to $5,000 per violation in each facility but are rarely applied because businesses usually comply when the reasons and consequences are explained.
“One of the big things we stress to these companies is our first responders need to know when they respond to these facilities what the company has,” De Los Santos said. “Really it’s to help out the business.”