Preparation key in tornado season

By Clarence Plank: Freedom New Mexico

Experts say certain weather conditions can spawn violent storms and tornadoes anytime and anywhere across eastern New Mexico.

The last major tornado touched down in March 2007, several weeks before the usual tornado season, according to the National Weather Service.

Emergency management directors in Curry and Roosevelt counties say they have worked steadily since the 2007 disaster to improve planning and alert systems in the event of another major storm.

Roosevelt County Emergency Management Director Keith Wattenbarger said even before bad weather strikes, his agency is tracking storms or keeping a close eye on developments.

“If it looks like we’re going to have inclement weather one of the things we want do is notify the press and make sure we’ve done our mass notifications,” Wattenbarger said.

Wattenbarger said preparing for possible tornadoes means having a plan in place before they strike. He suggested everyone should keep extra water, food and a portable radio handy just in case.

If bad weather does strike, notification can take many different avenues: Text messages, e-mails, sirens, or media alerts are the most common, Wattenbarger said.

Portales has also installed new sirens on the north, south, east and western borders for emergency alerts such as tornadoes.

In the event of an approaching tornado, “Those (sirens) will continued to be fired no less than every fifteen minutes or as long as we need to,” Wattenbarger said.

He also suggested using text messages or e-mails to contact family and friends during and after a storm are more effective ways than using a telephone. Wattenbarger says even if cell phone towers survive a big storm, they are frequently overloaded by the sheer volume of calls and can jam the system at critical times.

Wattenbarger said most of the severe summer weather for this area originates around Roswell, works its way to just north of Portales and turns eastward.

Ken Widelsky, lead forecaster with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, said tornadoes are not uncommon for the eastern plains and the region is on the brink of “Tornado Alley.”

“I would say anytime between May and June would be the peak. But it is not uncommon to see it anytime of the year given the right conditions,” Widelsky said. “Most likely when you have hot temperatures, a lot of moisture to work with and (wind) lift, those are the three things we look for and the best time for that is April, May and June.

“If you have a rain-free base, which is a called a wall cloud … the tornado descends to the ground,” Widelsky said. “Once the funnel hits the ground and there is a debris field, you have a tornado.”

Widelsky said the weather service conducts Skywarn classes for anyone wanting to learn about storms and help keep an eye on the sky.

Because of the Skywarn program, Roosevelt County now has 61 spotters between volunteer firefighters and Ham radio operators and Curry County has 43.

Curry County Emergency Management Director Ken De Los Santos said the agency also regularly practices mock disasters to refine notification or response techniques in the event of another tornado or other emergency.

“I don’t have an exact number of how many (tornadoes) we have had, but we can get tornadoes because we are on the edge of tornado alley,” De Los Santos said. “They might happen in parts of Roosevelt and Curry counties where nobody lives so you don’t know whether one has touched down or not. That is why storm spotters are so important.”