Dispatch flooded with calls during storm

By Sharna Johnson, Freedom New Mexico

Couples danced at a local senior citizens center. Other residents were working, driving through town, eating dinner, bowling, just relaxing.

Under cover of darkness, it approached from the south.

Some heard the sirens, some saw the warnings, some didn’t.

But what no one knew was that Clovis was about to experience its worst tornado in at least 44 years — one that would ultimately claim the lives of two people and forever change the community.

Forming in Roosevelt County just after 7:30 p.m., the cell tore through a dairy, killing hundreds of cattle before making the eight-mile trek to Clovis.

Its strength fluctuated, waning at times, as power lines, transformers, trees and vehicles along the highway became casualties of its force.

At 7:55 p.m. last March 23, calls began pouring into emergency dispatchers in Curry County — a tornado was carving a path through Clovis.
Panic, fear, shock and disbelief dominated the moments to follow.

“There’s power lines down and houses with roofs off and stuff,” a male voice reported.

“Where at?” 911 dispatcher Debby Blankenship asked, the pitch of her voice rising.

For 14 minutes, a barrage of similar calls came.

“It’s in the middle of the highway… Just send somebody please. … Oh my God,” a young male voice said.

The 19-year veteran dispatcher said emergency responders were prepared for bad weather that night but, “I just don’t think we knew the magnitude it was going be.”

As the lines flooded, Blankenship said training and experience kicked in.

One by one she fielded calls, trying to determine if there were injured, what help they needed, what she could do to assuage their fears and then on to the next one.

“You just react, you just do it. You don’t have time to think, you just do it,” she said.

“A tornado hit my house… I was in the closet and everything’s everywhere,” a woman shrieked into the phone, alternating wails and gasps.

“We need an ambulance… The trailer right across the street just blew, it’s tipping all out and my neighbor’s hurt,” another voice on the phone pleaded.

Concerns for her family, friends and her community were stifled by the task at hand.

“My neighborhood is destroyed… my neighbor’s house is on top of my house. Hurry,” a man on the southeast side of town yelled into the phone.
The calls tracked the progress of the violent whirlwind as it curved and ricocheted along U.S. 70 to the railroad tracks and north from Sycamore to 21st Street.

When the long night ended, Blankenship said she retired to her home and never went to see the aftermath.

“You hear it on the phone, you’re with them. You could hear the tone in their voices and you could hear the winds and you knew. You knew it was bad,” she said.

“I didn’t want to go see because it makes it more of a reality. … It’s peoples lives,” she said.

City Manager Joe Thomas said he drove around in the dark after the tornado passed, not grasping the full extent of the damage.

The devastation would not be fully understood until daybreak, when residents emerged from their shelter to find homes decimated, vehicles overturned, roofs blown away.

A 36-year resident of the community who has weathered many storms, floods and other disasters, Thomas said he was not prepared for what he saw.

Having slept only a couple of hours, Thomas rose with the sun to survey the damage to his community. Even with all the disaster training and preparations he had gone through as a city official, Thomas said nothing prepares you for the real thing.

“I was really surprised at the damage that I saw. It was a lot worse than I expected it to be.”

The storm’s path stretched like a jagged wound through the community.

In Curry County, more than 600 homes were damaged and approximately 35 people were injured.

Heleneta Blevins, 90, and Walter Cravy, also 90, lost their lives a few days after suffering injuries in the storm that was classified an EF2 with wind speeds between 110-125 miles per hour.

There have been 49 tornados in Curry County since record keeping began in 1932, but none have exceeded an EF2. Last year’s deaths were a first for recorded tornadoes in eastern New Mexico.

With a year between the community and that night, fences have been fixed, roofs replaced, trees replanted.

The treacherous piles of twisted metal, shattered glass and insulation have been scooped away, leaving empty lots behind.

But for many, the memories of that night are vivid.

“It still feels like it just happened. I can’t believe it’s been a year,” Blankenship said.

And the thought that never again would be too soon resonates deep within those who are glad to move forward.