I live in remote northern NM. In communities like mine, climate change means extreme weather events. We all watched the unfolding of Katrina, and now know that an extreme weather event can be compounded in severity by unfair allocation of resources, and that people of color and indigenous communities often see the shortest end of the resource stick.
In the past two years, I've blogged two extreme local weather events: the (then) largest fire in New Mexico's history which was threatening a national nuclear lab; and an artic freeze made even more deadly when someone in Texas decided to shut off our supply of gas for a week.
In the case of the fire that threatened Los Alamos, we were immediately allocated two Type One Incident Response Teams, thus diverting a potential nuclear disaster. But during the cold snap, no labs were threatened. The gas stayed on there. Someone in Texas decided to shut off the gas in my community instead for a week. Neighboring wealthy counties retained service.
Local leaders discussed the disaster and grilled Governor Martinez over gas in this video:
So how did one of the nation's top producers of natural gas come to be without gas in throes of a record-breaking Arctic freeze? This is a story familiar to many in the developing world.
Rio Arriba is 5,858 square miles of rugged mountainous terrain. It is approximately the same size as Massachusetts with a population of 41,000. Seventy-percent of its residents are Hispanics dating back to the days of Juan de Onate in the 16th century. Eighteen percent are Native Americans living on one of three reservations. The remaining 12% are Anglo. Rio Arriba is one of the poorest counties in New Mexico (which vies with Mississippi and Louisiana for the bottom of America's poverty heap).
The great gas debacle began in Texas when a huge ice storm rolled into the state. ERCOT, the Lone State's power company, was simultaneiously unprepared for frigid weather and had not invested in back-up generators. In order to avoid a massive blackout, ERCOT imposed smaller rolling blackouts on its West Texas grid.
Unfortunately, the rolling blackouts shut off power to gas compressors serving New Mexico (which also had no back-up emergency generators) forcing New Mexico Gas Company to shut down service to some areas of the state (h/t miep).
How did they decide whom to shut down? Well that decision was certainly not based on temperature since warmer areas stayed online while some communities such as Rio Arriba and Taos (which experienced temperatures as low as 36 degrees below zero) were removed from the grid. It also was not based on ease of reconnection. Rio Arriba's population density of about 6 persons per square mile combined with impassible dirt roads and dubious rural addressing make it hard to reach.
Even more incredibly, two of the coldest counties in NM, Rio Arriba and Taos, remained off the grid nearly a week into the shutdown.
Many Rio Arriba residents scraped by without fuel for heat or cooking. Some lost water as well as pipes either froze or burst in unheated homes. Gas Company of New Mexico pegged the two coldest counties, Rio Arriba and Taos, as the last to be restored. Rio Arriba's closest neighbors, Los Alamos and Santa Fe counties, are the wealthiest in New Mexico. Los Alamos is home to a national laboratory and Santa Fe to the state legislature while Rio Arriba is the stomping grounds of Hispanics, Native Americans and gas wells. Could money and influence have had anything to do with Rio Arriba's predicament?
Then newly elected Governor Martinez declared a state of emergency. Rio Arriba County set up an Emergency Operations Center which I gladly helped to woman as it was much warmer than my house. The Red Cross opened an emergency shelter where we were able to house senior citizens and families burned out of their homes by faulty space heaters. Governor Martinez arrived in Rio Arriba with 150 members of the National Guard. And after a week of valiant local efforts to warm and house our residents, somebody in Texas turned the gas back on. But not before local residents incurred thousands of dollars of damages to our homes, much of which was never reimbursed.
Now, onto fires. Some of you may remember the photos I posted last summer when smoke from the Las Conchas fire suddenly inundated my building. You might also remember my updates. One fine afternoon at 1 pm, my son noticed a small column of smoke ascending from Los Alamos into a clear blue sky. A few hours later, it was a mushroom cloud, and by evening flames enveloped the western sky. We had never seen a fire explode so rapidly.
But while a monster fire in AZ was allowed to rage with little federal assistance, two of America's Type One Incident Management Teams were quickly dispatched to our community, undoubtedly because the fire was heading straight for the nuclear laboratory in Los Alamos. They set up camp in my office parking lot and held daily briefings in the middle school next door, giving me great material for blogging.
Here are some photos I took of smoke advancing on my building. The sky went from relatively clear to zero percent visibility and ash raining on our heads in about 30 minutes:
If you happen to wander over to Mitt Romney’s website, try to decipher his policy positions on climate change. But don’t look too long; climate change isn't even mentioned once.
The stakes are too high to play politics with our lives. Please sign our petition that asks Mr. Romney two simple questions:
We need a leader who is unafraid to engage the environmental community and tell us the truth. When enough people ask, 350.org will deliver this petition to Romney campaign headquarters to see if he's ready to answer.
Please stay tuned for our follow-up report!