Seeing pictures of the flooding and fallout from Hurricane Harvey is hard for Santa Fe Fire Department Assistant Chief Jan Snyder. He seems to be a rescue guy at heart. While his city job is largely administrative now, Snyder can’t help but think back to when he was one of those people wading into a disaster with a confidence borne from knowing you can help.
More than 220 men and women made up New Mexico Task Force One; doctors and nurses, firefighters and paramedics, K9 searchers and even accountants. Split into three teams who were ready to deploy to a disaster like a tornado, a building collapse or massive flooding in just hours, NMTF1 was part of an elite Federal Emergency Management Agency network of less than 30 teams.
"It's frustrating," Snyder says of sitting on the sidelines now. But it was harder sitting on the sidelines while the task force still existed; scores of team members trained and waiting. "It's not that we lost the capability to act; we lost the capability to respond. … Sometimes we'd sit here and watch [the FEMA task force from] Phoenix drive by on their way to Texas. Or watch Colorado drive through."
New Mexico Homeland Security Secretary Jay Mitchell told a TV station last year that he felt his department would have little trouble finding the money to keep the task force together on a state level. But FEMA has taken much of its equipment back from the task force warehouse, and the state has now made leftover detection kits, infrared cameras and other tools available to local governments.
At the most recent City Council meeting, Santa Fe approved grants from the state of three chemical and radioactivity detection kits for the fire department and a thermal-imaging camera for the city's SWAT team.
It appears the elite disaster-response team has come to a disastrous end.
Ironically, the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management said it was too busy assisting with the response to Hurricane Harvey to provide any details about what had become of plans to keep the team around, how much equipment was still in state and where it had gone.
SFR requested a five-minute interview with Secretary Mitchell, but was told he was also too busy with the response to Hurricane Harvey. Karen Takai, the department spokeswoman, would not detail for SFR the extent of the state's emergency response. Last week, however, the department announced on Facebook that it had elevated operations at its Emergency Operations Center to Level 3—the same response it would have to a hail storm, a small wildfire or minor flooding. State guidelines say that means no extra hours worked and only partial staffing at the operations center.
There's little doubt that whatever New Mexico is doing for Harvey victims now, the state would have been able to provide a much bigger and presumably much more helpful response if the urban search and rescue task force had become more organized in the decade that FEMA gave it to get up to speed. The problems began during the Richardson administration and continued under Gov. Susana Martinez.
The state not only flubbed the logistical part of managing the task force, but it also appeared that at least one team member had been forging certifications in an apparent effort to shore up recordkeeping.
Then, in April, the New Mexican reported that agents with US Homeland Security had served a search warrant on the state, suspicious that the task force chief and an administrative assistant had been taking online certification courses on behalf of team members. The agency did not provide any information about that investigation to SFR. No charges have been filed.
Much of New Mexico's task force equipment is now in New Jersey, where the state-funded team that responded to 9/11, Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy had an easy time transitioning into the national response system.
"We were greenlighted to be operational on Oct. 4 , and we were deployed to Hurricane Matthew on Oct. 6," says Laura Connolly of the New Jersey State Police. "And we didn't have any of that [New Mexico] equipment at that time. So we deployed with our state equipment."
New Jersey Task Force One, as it's now known, sent a water-rescue team of 19 people last month to assist with disaster response in Texas and Louisiana.
"They do this because it's a passion," Connolly tells SFR.
Jan Snyder knows all about that passion. He says local departments have long had a smaller-scale, local response network. It works well, he says. But sending a team now to respond to a disaster such as Hurricane Harvey without the logistical support that NMTF1 had?
"That would be like getting into a truck and driving into the wilderness and saying, 'Okay, we're here. Now what?'"