Neglected rural communities unprepared for disaster - Albuquerque Journal

Neglected rural communities unprepared for disaster

The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire is a looking glass into the lack of preparedness for disasters in rural New Mexico.

This disaster opens the curtains on decades of neglect in our aging communities. Those seeking elected office know they need the north to win and never miss a fiesta parade, only to forget about us the morning after the votes are tallied. Now that the largest fire in the United States has landed at our feet, we are forced to navigate this disaster alone with no preparation. The state’s response has been painfully slow, disorganized and largely inadequate. The fire started on April 16. The first incident commander arrived in Mora 12 days after the presidential executive order was entered and a full month after the fire started.

In good times, Mora has poor mobile service, limited broadband access and stretched human resources. Now the electrical service is compromised and there is no drinking water. In an age of abundant satellite technology, local leaders needed communication at ground zero at the start of the disaster, not four weeks into the tragedy – a need that was too slow to be realized.

Mora has an emergency medical service that operates out of two hotel rooms and pays minimum wage. Qualified and educated first responders stay and do the work because it’s home. There has been chronic underfunding for decades, and the fragile system is now hanging by a thread. Today, these same responders have gone weeks in that hotel with no running water and no electricity, at times sleeping in their units because if they didn’t stay behind, others could die.

Across the valley, the volunteer firefighters, our homegrown heroes, have been operating under the same conditions because generators were tied up in state bureaucracy in Las Vegas, New Mexico. These firefighters continue on with overused equipment and limited uniforms. These heroes have been the life blood of Mora, feeding the elderly and keeping pets alive. They do it without complaint because it’s home and if they don’t save it, no one will.

The locals at the food distribution center have been chastised for not evacuating, when evacuation resources were scarce. Their eyes are red from smoke, and despair is apparent. The Santa Fe bureaucrats wanted them out, so supply lines were repeatedly stalled behind roadblocks. If they had left, the vulnerable would suffer. Their efforts have succeeded by pure perseverance. There was no plan in place to help those that could not leave.

The fires have charred our land, and the lack of resources may break our spirit. Mora residents are starting to return to rancid refrigerators from weeks without electricity. As always in the north, we are left to our scrappy ways to find solutions. The solid waste department was underfunded prior to the disaster. Now, mountains of waste will compound. Until now, none of this could be reported because reporters were also stalled behind road blocks.

In a time of disaster, we do not have time for bureaucracy. We do not have time for the correct politician to get credit before providing a resource. Local leaders cannot keep up with the extreme need, exhausted themselves. It’s time for the chronic underfunding of rural communities to end. Rural communities are not capable of handling the logistical burden of a disaster without immediate help. If this calamity ever falls on another New Mexico community, disaster commanders are needed on the first day of the crisis.

Rural residents deserve a proper disaster response and shouldn’t have to beg at the state’s feet to get it. People needed help weeks ago; we are now desperate for it.

Antonia Roybal-Mack was born and raised in Mora. Her parents and siblings have been directly impacted by the blaze. She now practices law in Albuquerque.

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