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Thursday, February 13, 2003

Bill Would Allow Forced Evacuations

By Kate Nash
Journal Capitol Bureau
    SANTA FE New Mexico governors would have authority to order large-scale evacuations after a terrorist attack under a measure making its way through the state House.
    The governor also would be able to order emergency evacuation and transportation routes for an entire community. Law enforcement officials would have authority under the same measure (HB 253) to put displaced residents in temporary housing.
    Rep. Gloria C. Vaughn, R-Alamogordo, chief sponsor, said the bill is aimed at terrorism-related events, but could be invoked for other emergencies.
    "It's mostly for terrorism but it could be used for fires because I know so many people don't want to leave their homes," she said Wednesday.
    New Mexico governors currently can only recommend that citizens evacuate.
    Vaughn said the bill will complement efforts by Gov. Bill Richardson to prepare New Mexicans for the aftermaths of an attack.
    Richardson is asking New Mexico lawmakers to create a Cabinet-level Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Department. Former state senator and State Police captain R.L. Stockard has been appointed to head the department.
    Another bill sponsored by Vaughn (HB 254) would exempt government terror response plans from the state Inspection of Public Records Act.
    "In light of the potential terrorist threats we are facing today, I believe it is crucial to our safety to consider and prepare for any possible security issues," Vaughn said. "These two bills will help resolve some of those issues should an emergency situation arise."
    The director of an open government watchdog group said his concerns would grow if the bill were amended to include a broader definition of records that would be exempted from the records inspection act.
    "Other things may come up, but at the moment we aren't arguing against it," said Robert Johnson, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government.
    Those measures, approved earlier this week by the House Government and Urban Affairs Committee, are part of a package of terrorism-related bills being considered by state lawmakers.
    Putting the bills together involved coordination from various state agencies, said Attorney General's Office spokeswoman Sam Thompson.
    "The purpose of a terrorist attack is to create chaos," she said. "With these bills, the idea is to put in an orderly course of action so people know what to do."
    Another measure (SB 194) sponsored by Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, deals with the public-health repercussions of an attack.
    Under the measure, the governor could issue a state of public health emergency.
    In an emergency, the bill gives officials the authority to evacuate public health care facilities for emergency use, to ration health care supplies and to quarantine people who may have been exposed to a potentially threatening communicable disease. It also sets up a process under which interagency officials would safely dispose of human remains.
    Thompson said the agencies involved in crafting the bills, including the departments of health and public safety, took into account citizens' rights.