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County emergency managers learn benefits of agricultural emergency planning

LAS CRUCES - Union County Extension agent David Graham has first-hand experience how an agricultural emergency plan prepares a community. His county had just finished the agriculture amendment to its emergency operations plan when the January 2007 blizzard buried some areas of northeastern New Mexico in more than 30 inches of snow and 10- to 15-foot drifts.

Ricky Maxwell, Texas Extension agent, realized how an agricultural emergency plan could have helped the Gulf Coast counties after Hurricane Ike roared through southeast Texas last summer causing pasture to be flooded and fences to be destroyed, which allowed livestock to roam free until volunteers could round them up and return them to their owners.

"While we organized our plan we realized the different services various county and state departments could offer during an emergency response," Graham said. "That helped us when the snows hit and we had to clear roads with bulldozers. It also helped us coordinate the airlift of hay to the stranded cattle."

"During an emergency is not the time to try to develop an operational plan," Maxwell told participants at the Strengthening Community Agrosecurity planning and training sessions held in January in Las Cruces. The training was given to representatives of New Mexico's Department of Homeland Security and county representatives from Emergency Management Area 6.

The Southwest Border Food Safety and Defense Center (SBFSDC) at New Mexico State University's College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Science, New Mexico Department Homeland Security and Emergency Management and the Extension Disaster Education Network's Strengthening Communities Through Agrosecurity Planning Committee sponsored the training that focused on the emergencies that could occur in each county and the damage that could be done to the agricultural industry, the economy of the county and the state of New Mexico.

Co-directors of SBFSDC's office of bio-security, Billy Dictson of NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service, and Jeff Witte of the New Mexico Department of Agriculture contributed to the development of the curriculum and made presentations during the training.

Emergency response managers and members of the agricultural industry and communities from seven southern New Mexico counties Catron, Dona Ana, Grant, Hidalgo, Luna, Otero and Sierra received vital information to develop their local plan. They learned how to assess their local agricultural industry response-needs and how to define the roles of local responders to an agricultural emergency.

"It's not a matter of if an emergency is going to happen, but rather when. It could be caused either by disease, humans, or a natural disaster, such as a snow blizzard or wildfires," Dictson said. "Having an emergency operation plan in place helps responses go smoother."

While the various counties' plans are at different stages, the county emergency managers agreed that the training was very helpful.

"In our emergency operation procedures training, we had a little coverage of agricultural plans, but after this meeting, I can see that we need to get back with the agricultural personnel to get them involved in our local emergency planning committee meetings to tap into their areas of expertise," said Forrest Bostic, Luna County emergency manager. "We got a lot of information from this training that will benefit us at the local level."

"Our extension office promoted this event and we got a good response from our agricultural community, which is a great public resource for planning as well as during emergency situations," said Paul Quairoli, emergency service director for Otero County.

Others said the training in Las Cruces was a "tremendous opportunity" for their planning committee members to get an understanding of the tools they are going to use to assist them in developing agricultural, emergency-operating procedures.