As New Mexico settles into wintertime, residents can enjoy a temporary respite from scorching summer sun, gale force winds and the unexpected deluge during monsoon season.
Wintertime in the Land of Enchantment offers cold winter nights followed by pleasant sunny days in the 50s and 60s when jackets become optional depending upon personal preference. Snowbirds swoop down from the frigid northeast.
Enjoy, but keep a wary eye for sudden and unexpected dramatic climatic changes.
"You can be lulled into a false sense of security," said Anthony Brown, a meteorologist at White Sands Missile Range.
That may have been the case in February 2011 when the coldest recorded day in White Sands history saw the thermometer plunge to minus 23 degrees on the northern part of the test range at Stallion Wit.
And again in December 2015 when unseasonably balmy weather and warm temperatures suddenly plunged as a result of a Pacific cold front, bringing with it wind gusts exceeding hurricane force on the test range.
That same storm system also dumped over 5 inches of snow that caused a blackout at White Sands, requiring generator support at the Youth Center, Frontier Club and Bell Gym to restore heat and electricity.
That amount paled, however, compared to December 1987 when 20 inches of snow dumped on White Sands in only one day, and more than 27 inches for the month.
"It's wise to keep in mind, it can snow here, and it can snow big," said Brown.
Adding to the historical meteorological December woes, a fierce wind gust of about 80 mph ripped off two-thirds of an office building at White Sands in December 2009, and in December 2012, wind gusts up to 86 mph blew out at least 75 vehicle windshields because of the dramatic change in air pressure.
But enough with the wintertime news of gloom and doom. The main message here isn't to be worried about winter, but to be prepared for the unexpected.
Sometimes weather will vary depending on where you are and where you're going. For example, Brown said temperatures can vary as much as 15 degrees as you drive from main post to range locations such as Stallion Wit which is located at 4,500 feet and rests in a bowl.
And even if you never leave main post, there are wintertime precautions that White Sands employees and residents should keep in mind, said Skip Stuck, Chief of Safety for White Sands Missile Range.
"High winds are our biggest threat," said Stuck, who recently found his heavy-duty barbecue grill deposited into his neighbor's yard after a sudden windstorm. "If it means something to you, put it away."
Dec. 12 of this year is a good example of sudden changes in WSMR weather. The day began with the gentlest of breezes, but soon after lunch there were gusts up to 32 mph, and by nightfall Brown had issued a weather warning with gusts up to 55 mph.
Batten down the backyard, but when it comes to your car, you do so by cracking the windows. When winds begin exceeding around 50 mph, Stuck recommends cracking your car windows to help prevent them from blowing out.
In certain situations, you can apply to the legal office for compensation, which will be discussed in further detail below.
Your car is another source of winter safety. Before pulling out of the driveway on mornings when temps are around freezing or below, Stuck recommends letting the car idle long enough to give hoses and seals sufficient time to warm up and expand.
Those same cold temps also affect your tires by reducing pressure up to about 5 pounds, so start out slow and allow them time to reflate due to the friction of movement on the road.
So with all this in mind, Stuck recommends giving yourself an extra 10 or 15 minutes to get to work. And while you're driving, always be aware of children's activities, especially during the holiday. Distracted drivers with too much on their minds is a top hazard during the holidays, said Stuck.
And remember that when opening and closing car doors on windy days, be mindful of the impact that wind can have on the door, causing harm to your arms or side of a neighboring car.
Inside your house, verify that your heat, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are charged and working. And if you're using gas appliances, ensure there is sufficient free air space around them.
And if you're heading out for the day for a hike or other activities, Stuck advises following the Check-in/Check-out system to make sure someone knows where you're going, what your itinerary is, when you'll be back.
And before heading out, dress for success and pack sufficient water and supplies. "Dress for current and potential conditions. Temps can drop fast in wintertime," said Stuck.
For claims related to wind damage and other unusual occurrences, the Staff Judge Advocate Office offer the following guidance:
Army guidance provides that most vehicle damage is payable only if caused by fire, flood, hurricane or other unusual occurrence. The Personnel Claims Act provides limited protection for extraordinary hazards, broadly categorized as losses due to abnormal climactic conditions. High winds and blowing sand, however, are common in the White Sands area. Thus, damage to the paint or exterior trim of a vehicle caused by sand and debris blown by the wind are not generally payable, as it is considered "gradual deterioration" rather than the result of an unusual occurrence.
In contrast, claimants suffering damage (other than paint and finishes) to vehicles or other personal property will be compensated when the damage occurs as a result of an unusual occurrence. For example, if the winds are so strong that the installation meteorologists confirm it to be an unusual climatic occurrence, then proper claimants would be compensated.
The White Sands claims officer would accept claims for compensation based on that event. The damage most commonly associated with high winds at White Sands Missile Range is automobile glass breakage.
Army regulations and Federal law specifically identify who may be compensated for damage to property. Proper claimants are Soldiers on active duty, civilian employees of the Department of the Army, civilian employees of the Department of Defense, and NAF employees (payable through NAF channels).
The White Sands JAG Office will also accept claims from service personnel with the Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps and forward them for consideration to their respective claims authorities. Note that employees of government contractors are not proper claimants.
If your vehicle or other personal property is damaged by high winds, you can obtain a claims packet from the Staff Judge Advocate Office. This packet contains instructions and all of the necessary forms to file a claim. You need to first file a claim for damages with your insurance company before you file a claim with the government.
The government will then reimburse you for any portion of the deductible that you pay. Claimants will also need two estimates of repair, except in cases involving coverage from an insurer that only requires one estimate.
Therefore, to adequately be protected against loss, White Sands Missile Range residents and employees are advised to purchase the necessary insurance with affordable deductibles. Automobiles should be parked in garages when possible, and outdoor property should be stored indoors or properly secured if left exposed to the elements.
For more information or assistance in filing a damage claim, please contact Lori Fergie at the Staff Judge Advocate Office at 678-1263.
Sidebar Story: So you're a weatherman, huh?
There are some occupations that just seemingly draw attention to their practitioners. Meet a lawyer, dentist, rocket scientist or newspaper reporter at a party and you're probably likely to conjure up certain stereotypical images and perhaps a few jokes.
It's the same with meteorologists, said Anthony Brown, a meteorologist at White Sands Missile Range. Below are a few stereotypes, comments and misconceptions they sometimes encounter:
- Weather never happens here at WSMR
- It's always windy
- What exactly do you do here?
- Are you a weatherman on TV?
- When is it going to snow or rain next?
- When is it going to stop snowing or raining?
- Will I be able to play golf this weekend?
- It must be nice to get paid and be wrong 50 percent of the time