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Weather radio outage jeopardizes flood alerts in fire zone

Radio transmitter
Radio transmitter

With New Mexico’s monsoon season and a historic fire season now both underway, there is a serious risk of flash flooding on the fresh burn scars. One way to receive emergency weather alerts is through a weather radio. But a key transmitter serving the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire zone is damaged.

Even on a good day, The NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards signal is spotty in Mora and San Miguel counties. But since late March, the Des Moines transmitter that services northeastern New Mexico has been out of service.

National Weather Service Meteorologist Todd Shoemake said the antenna was damaged by high winds and has yet to be repaired due in part to supply chain issues.

"We’re in coordination with some of our technicians and our contractors trying to get that expedited and remedied as fast as possible," he said. "But unfortunately it’s been taking quite a bit of time."

He said in the meantime, the weather service has suggested to the state using sirens and Department of Transportation signage to alert residents, among other efforts.

At a press conference Friday, Secretary of the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management David Dye spoke about flood preparedness. "The most difficult task we have encountered thus far is notification," he said.

One way of getting alerts is by smart phone. Dye said two cell towers were destroyed by fire in Mora — one temporary tower has already been installed and he says another should go in this weekend, though may not be up and running right away.

He also said his department has also procured 50 weather radios.

"We’re going to get those directly to Mora and San Miguel counties and distribute those to people who do not have any other means of communication," he said.

But with that transmitter still out of action, most of those two counties would not receive a flood alert from the radios, according to a National Weather Service signal map. Only the most eastern edge of both counties and a small portion of central Mora County receive reception from the nearby Santa Fe transmitter.

Dye didn’t mention the downed transmitter at the press conference, but said his department has partnered with Las Vegas radio station KNMX 540 AM to broadcast the alerts, though residents have to be tuned in to hear them.

The Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management did not immediately respond to a request for comment about whether the Secretary is aware that the northeastern New Mexico transmitter is not functioning.

Nash Jones (they/them) is a general assignment reporter in the KUNM newsroom and the local host of NPR's All Things Considered (weekdays on KUNM, 5-7 p.m. MT). You can reach them at nashjones@kunm.org or on Twitter @nashjonesradio.
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