When stranded travelers started to pile up in Moriarty during a record-setting winter storm Saturday, everything worked like a well-oiled machine, according to those who helped out.
In a storm that dumped up to 2 feet of snow, with drifts much higher than that, Gov. Susana Martinez declared a statewide emergency, and at some points in the storm, Interstate 40 was shut down from the far west side of Albuquerque to the Texas state line.
However, I-40 was briefly opened eastbound from Albuquerque Saturday, and later that day, it was briefly opened westbound from Santa Rosa. On Saturday night, the day after Christmas, the Lions Club in Moriarty opened its doors for what was initially a trickle of stranded motorists who found that motel rooms citywide were booked.
“We opened up at that time so people could get off the road,” said Lions Club President Don Trumbull. He figured about a hundred people spent the night that night.
Around 3 o’clock that morning, Moriarty Mayor Ted Hart spoke with Jace Alderson, who manages the Moriarty Civic Center. “I went over there [to the Lions Club] and we thought we were good,” Alderson said. “When we found out one of the police was escorting another hundred in, the motels were full—I ran down and opened the Civic Center right away.
By the time that was said and done, more than 200 people had been put up for the night at the Civic Center, Alderson said. The first person through the door was a Red Cross volunteer, herself stranded. She, like others who found themselves taking advantage of Moriarty’s hospitality that night, pitched in to help, Alderson said.
Other volunteers started coordinating food for the stranded travelers, who totaled between 500 and 600 people, Hart said.
Pilot Truck Stop sent over enough pizza for 200 people. Residents brought over pots of beans and pans full of brownies, Alderson said.
Sheriff Heath White—who when he spoke to The Independent had been going for three days without a break—helped to keep people informed about road conditions, helped serve pizza and set up cots, and helped coordinate between the three locations eventually opened up.
When the Civic Center filled, the Moriarty High School gym was opened up and a third shelter set up there, Hart said.
And Hart took it another step, calling Edgewood’s Mayor Brad Hill, who got in touch with his church, Valley View Christian Church, and had that set up and ready for people if the need had arisen. As it turned out, that extra space wasn’t needed, but Hill said it was a good example of communities working together.
The sheriff’s role in helping stranded travelers came between dealing with 86 accidents in just over two days, including three fatalities and “multiple people in critical condition,” White said Monday. “We had multiple rollovers, things like that.”
Deputies also helped rescue people who had gotten stuck on side roads, “people lost up in the mountains, or wrecked on a back road,” White said.
“Mayor Hart and his little crew saved me,” White said. “They were really outstanding. We had citizens pitch in, show up and volunteer even in the middle of a big storm. I’m extremely proud of our citizens.”
Hart, for his part, had high words of praise for Trumbull and Alderson, both of whom also worked for days without any sleep. “We have volunteers that come out of the woodwork when this happens and we always have, as far back as I can remember when I was a kid,” Hart said.
The next morning, the Lions made pancakes—“They love their pancakes,” joked the mayor—and Pilot had already sent 7 or 8 trays of breakfast sandwiches to the Civic Center. At some point the National Guard made a donation of food, much of which will now be stored for the next emergency.
Torrance County’s emergency manager, Javier Sanchez, manned the shelter at the high school gym, which he said opened at about 9:30 p.m. Saturday.
The next morning, all three shelters were deactivated when the interstate opened to traffic at 10 a.m.
Hart also had high words of praise for Joy Ansley, the Torrance County manager. Road crews were clearing roads starting in the very early hours of the morning, Hart said, and Ansley pitched in setting up cots and serving pizza, all the while directing the road crews and other county services.
During the thick of the storm, Hart said Ansley drove to Albuquerque to buy a part for the road department.
When asked about it Tuesday, Ansley said only, “They just needed help, so we jumped in and helped—no big deal.”
Torrance County road crews were out starting at 3 a.m. the night of the storm, Ansley said, adding, “It’s all in a day’s work for those guys—most of them have a lot of fun with it, and enjoy it. The hours are long. They’d have been happy to stay out longer, but they need to get their rest, too.”
“There are no differences in time of emergency,” Hart said. “We’re all under the same blanket—we become family real quick. … Just to see the county manager and the sheriff … pushing cars out of ditches. To see the common good of what we’re all here for. Honestly I forgot it was Christmas the day before. We knew we had a job to do and we got it done.”
“I want to commend Mayor Hart as well for the job that he did,” Hill said. “He kept me well informed. … He put in some long hours and did a great job, I thought.”
Hill said Edgewood will take a look at its own emergency preparedness as a result of the storm.
“We can do so much when the bickering is aside and we know that we can trust each other,” Alderson said. “There wasn’t a bit of doubt on nobody what we couldn’t do that night. I can’t say enough about everybody in this county that was involved in this.”
Trumbull put it this way: “I know how I would feel it I was out there in a snowbank somewhere and had nowhere to go. Everybody that comes in that shelter—you helped save their life. … Over the years I’ve seen men, six foot tall come in off the road with tears in their eyes because they’re so scared for their families. Women come in tears because they’re so scared. Being able to help them, that’s what makes it all worthwhile.”
Trumbull said that even though some of those stuck in Moriarty offered to make donations to the Lions Club, the club wouldn’t take their money. “We get by all right with the help from the community. I feel they should keep their money at least until they get home safe.”
Leota started working for The Independent in 2006, working her way up through the ranks. An employee buyout in 2010 led to her ownership of the newspaper. Leota has served on the board of the N.M. Press Association, and is currently its First Vice President. She is passionate about health and wellness, especially mental health, and loves making art. She can be reached at [email protected]