Home News COVID-19 Situation Sanders honored for behind-the-scenes pandemic work

Sanders honored for behind-the-scenes pandemic work

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Emergency management personnel tend to be those behind the scenes during a crisis, and they tend to like it that way, said Karen Sanders, Roswell/Chaves County Emergency Management director. But last week she found herself unexpectedly in the limelight.

At Thursday’s meeting of the Roswell City Council, Sanders was on the agenda to give an update on the local efforts dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. After her presentation, though, Mayor Dennis Kintigh asked her to remain at the lectern and then began to read a proclamation commending Sanders for her work seven days a week throughout the last 10 months and declaring December as Karen Sanders Emergency Manager Month.

“The comment about seven days a week doesn’t do this woman justice. She does it on her weekends. She’s involved in calls. I get a text message from her every single day — every day — telling me how many cases we have in this county,” Kintigh said after reading the proclamation.

“I don’t know anyone who has poured more into this community during this crisis than Karen Sanders. I’m privileged to stand here with her,” he said.

Sanders said she was honored by the surprise, but she didn’t let it go to her head. She was back at work the next day.

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Each day — weekends and holidays included — Sanders and other emergency managers participate in a conference call with the New Mexico Emergency Operations Center to get updated on the response to the pandemic. Information changes daily and even throughout the day, she said.

She then disseminates the information to the appropriate people across the five districts she manages in Chaves County. That includes mayors and other city officials of Roswell, Dexter, Hagerman and Lake Arthur, as well as the hospitals, long-term care and other medical facilities, school superintendents, fire and police chiefs, and ambulance services.

“Texting and email have become my friend,” she said with a laugh.

She also helps those agencies order equipment and other supplies related to the pandemic. Once a week, the county receives a supply of personal protection equipment, which is picked up by the city Streets Department and delivered to her office for distribution.

A Roswell native, she’s been on the job since October 2012. In November, she was named emergency manager of the year for 2019 by the state of New Mexico.

While Sanders said emergency managers work and train every day to prepare their jurisdictions for disasters, the pandemic is like nothing they have ever been through.

Normally, Sanders said, emergency managers cycle through different phases of their jobs. There’s preparation and mitigation, which includes various trainings for situations or with new equipment first responders have received or even working on building codes. Response is the actions carried out during the event, followed by recovery.

“All emergency managers are just exhausted,” Sanders said. “Normally when we have an event, you have a few days you’re in the response mode, which is your crazy time. With this pandemic, we’ve never gotten out of the response mode.”

Even as the pandemic is still unfolding, Sanders has been conducting some work that normally happens in the recovery mode — tracking related expenses and submitting them for reimbursement.

“Normally that happens after the event. You’ve got a flood or tornado and you’ve got some damaged bridges or some damaged roads and now you’re seeking financial help from the state or federal government. You start tracking those costs as the event’s ongoing but you’re not usually seeking the reimbursement during the event,” she said.

“Because this event is lasting so long, there’s no way we can hold back all that information-gathering. It would be overwhelming to try and get it submitted, so we’re trying to track our expenses and submit costs that are reimbursable as we’re still responding instead of waiting until the end,” she said.

In addition, there is the normal work of emergency management that needs to be done.

“The projects we had going on prior, pre-COVID we call them, are still going on. We’re right in the middle of rewriting our hazard mitigation plan, which is a document that we have to keep up-to-date in order to be eligible for certain federal funds,” she said.

Much of the necessary training has shifted gears to virtual meetings focused on the pandemic. A recent example was a virtual “table-top” simulation of distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, she said.

Sanders said it’s fortunate that days such as weekends usually only require a few hours of work to gather and share information, but the last 10 months have been stressful for her and her colleagues. They find some stress relief in supporting each other, she said, especially in the nine-county area of southeast New Mexico.

“Emergency managers are kind of a small group, so we are able to just really rely on support of one another,” she said. “If someone is struggling with something or has a question they can’t find an answer to, we’re able to just reach out to each other.”

They share plans and resources with each other so everyone doesn’t have to “reinvent the wheel,” she said. Sometimes they even just send jokes to each other.

“I am so fortunate to work alongside these exceptional people who are so dedicated. They are all working the same hours I’m working. Nobody is getting a day off, so when you need that extra help and support, it’s really a great community to be able to reach out to,” she said.

City/RISD reporter Juno Ogle can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or reporter04@rdrnews.com.

To keep up with local coverage of the coronavirus, go to rdrnews.com/category/news/covid-19-situation/.

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