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Celebrate the sunshine and N.M.’s low disaster risk

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By Merilee Dannemann

In my garage is an old suitcase packed with old clothes. It’s to grab in an emergency. 

There’s a sturdy canvas bag tucked away in a suitable place, where a couple of checkbooks are kept and a backup computer hard drive is stored.

Because I live in central New Mexico, I probably will never need those things. New Mexico is a pretty good place to avoid natural disasters.  

The state is ranked 40th out of 50 states for the number of disaster declarations and 33rd of 50 for relative riskiness by the company Core Logic, based on an analysis of storm damage.

But, this week as we appreciate the sunshine and our dry feet, let’s be relaxed but not complacent. The recent hurricanes remind us that disasters can happen anytime and anywhere. What could happen here? What can we prepare for, individually or collectively?

The state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management has a detailed document called the Hazard Mitigation Plan. 

The plan says the most significant hazards facing New Mexico are fires at the wild land-urban interface, high wind, thunderstorms including lightning and hail, flood, and drought. Drought is a cause of disaster but generally not an emergency, unless it sparks fires.

We know about fire and that if you live near a forest you might have to evacuate on very short notice. We know about flooding and that generally floods are limited to areas near waterways. 

New Mexico is also subject to dam failures, earthquakes, tornadoes, landslides, high wind and even the possibility of a volcano becoming active, but nothing on the scale of the devastation in southeast Texas or Florida.

Dam failures, overspills and other breaches have happened. According to the hazard mitigation plan, there are 594 dams in the state, public and private. Of the 300 dams that come under the jurisdiction of the State Engineer’s Dam Safety Bureau, 151 are classified as high hazard potential, 60 as significant hazard potential, and 89 as low. Of the high-hazard dams, 115 have been identified as deficient. There has been no recorded loss of life.

If  you live below a dam, you may want to learn about your own hazard exposure.

A dam failure could be triggered by another event, such as flooding or an earthquake. Central New Mexico has earthquake activity, and apparently numerous earthquakes have occurred under my feet without my knowledge. The greatest risk, says the plan document, is between Albuquerque and Socorro. 

The report says Los Alamos lies near several major boundary faults of the Rio Grande rift. Just as the nuclear material stored at Los Alamos was threatened by the Cerro Grande Fire in 2000, it’s a concern in an earthquake and a reason why New Mexicans should prioritize finding a long-term storage solution. The report says there have been at least eight earthquakes felt by residents of Los Alamos since World War II. Whatever gets loose in Los Alamos could run into the Rio Grande, affecting communities downstream.

In an earthquake, water and gas lines could rupture. Power lines could fall. Any of these things can start a fire. 

Not all disasters are made by nature, as we were reminded by the Gold King mine disaster in 2015.

We can’t know what’s going to happen, but we can each do our little bit to think about it and prepare. If you have an old suitcase and room in your garage, you might throw a few clothes in it and set it aside. 

However, our relatively low exposure is an advantage. 

 

The U. S. Geological Survey predicts an 18 percent chance of a large earthquake near Socorro in the next hundred years. Taken together with the other statistics, that could be an economic development opportunity we might want to brag about.