Thursday, December 10, 2009

Winds Wreak Havoc

By John Larson

SOCORRO – After a weekend of wintry weather, high winds were a cause of concern for many county residents, especially those traveling on Highway 60, which had to be shut down near Magdalena for over an hour Tuesday afternoon.
The closure was the result of diesel fuel leaking from the tank of a wrecked semi tractor trailer.
According to Magdalena Marshal Larry Cearley, two semis were blown off the road; one at mile marker 126, and the other at mile marker 119.
“The semi at 119 leaked 240 gallons of diesel fuel,” Cearley said. “The highway had to be closed until the hazmat operation had been completed. It was closed from about 3:40 to 5 p.m.”
Magdalena Fire Department assisted the state highway department in the cleanup.
Truck driver Dave Gibson from Boise, Idaho, said he was on his way to Tucson when he experienced the estimated 100 mph gusts on Highway 60. His father, Dale, was also in the cab of his ’92 Peterbilt tractor-trailer.
Gibson said he had slowed down to about 15 to 20 mph, and was nearing mile marker 119 when he saw another semi heading his way.
“I saw the truck coming, making pretty good speed. He had a tailwind behind him,” he said. “I told my Dad, ‘this guy is going to push us over’.”
As the other semi passed him, Gibson said his rig was caught in its draft.
“I saw the trailer in the rearview mirror going up, and I thought, ‘we’re going to wreck’, he said.
“Then we were airborne. It took us completely off the ground. I was seeing blue sky out the windshield.”
He said the whole rig was upright and was “sucked up vertically about 10 feet. Then it flipped over and slammed down. We hit hard.”
“Never in my 35 years of driving a truck have I seen it so windy,” Gibson said. “This is my first accident. My cab was totaled.”
He said the other trucker never stopped, but a family from Alamo stopped to help, and a trucker following him pulled over to lend assistance.
New Mexico State Police and the Socorro County Sheriff’s Department assisted Cearley with traffic control. Magdalena EMTs said neither of the two men accepted medical treatment.
“People need to be aware of conditions, and slow down in high wind areas,” Cearley said.
There were no injuries connected with the other blown-over semi, and it was towed from the area Wednesday morning.
Higher winds were recorded at other stations in the county.
Magdalena Ridge Observatory’s Eileen Ryan said sustained wind speeds at the 10,600 foot facility averaged about 100 mph over a seven hour period Monday night.
“The strongest gust was 128 miles per hour during that period,” Ryan said. “We had very, very intense conditions on the ridge. We’ve never had this level of sustained winds.”
She said the road to the MRO on South Baldy became impassable because of four foot drifts.
“Our crews couldn’t keep up with the drifting, and evacuated the road about mid morning (Tuesday), Ryan said.
Gale force winds wreaked havoc on the City of Socorro’s special events tent at the plaza, which was had not been taken down after being used for the Festival of the Cranes.
Local weather-watcher Bob Schwiegerath said his instruments recorded gusts as high as 65 miles an hour late Monday night in Socorro.
A 55 mile an hour gust was recorded Tuesday morning.
“The average wind speed in town was around 25 miles an hour Tuesday,” he said.
Schwiegerath added that total precipitation for the year so far was only about seven inches.
Jennifer Palucki at the National Weather Service in Albuquerque said a strong surface low across the northeastern part of the state resulted in a “tight pressure gradient” which caused the higher than normal winds.
“We were seeing a very strong jet aloft on the order of 80 to 90 knots at 10,000 feet,” Palucki said. “That, combined with a strong surface low across northeastern New Mexico resulted in a tight pressure gradient, causing the high winds.”
Socorro Electrical Co-op Engineering Operations Manager Richard Lopez told the Mountain Mail the storm caused minor power outages in the county.
“We had a couple of ranches in the Bingham area that lost power, and a line at Stallion on White Sands,” Lopez said. “Near Water Canyon we had a power line down that affected 15 to 20 residences. Their power was off about five hours.”
“A transmission line that goes to Magdalena was hit with high winds that caused about three bumps on the line, which affected everything all the way to Arizona, but no complete outages,” he said.
Lopez attributed the minor outages, in light of the high winds, to good preventative maintenance by the crews of Line Superintendent David Montoya.
“Two of our crews were even requested to help out Otero County last week to help them deal with their situation,” Lopez said.
In other parts of the state, Governor Bill Richardson declared Otero and Mora counties disaster areas Wednesday due to the effects of the storm.

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