Border Alert

Coping with catastrophe along the line

The Nogales Wash is born at the border, meandering among oaks and squat warehouses on its languid journey north. And most times, the drainage is little more than a dry concrete ribbon, marked by steep walls and rancid clumps of flotsam desiccating in the desert heat.

But like so many things here in Nogales, Ariz., the quirks of this wash are driven by events south of the line in Nogales, Sonora. It is there that huge swells of sewage collect, until a breach in the system—storm-water overflow or rupturing pipes—causes the whole foul mess to surge downhill, across the border and into the Nogales Wash. So it is that folks on this side suddenly find their dusty channel filled with raw filth, and the attendant risk of disease.

This, however, is but one worry. Others come from the industrial belt of Sonora, where many toxins, known and unknown, are used in daily manufacturing. Still more dangerous chemicals, sulfuric acid in particular, routinely travel through town on the rails, and their cargoes have spilled. Then come concerns of a pandemic, epitomized by the 2009 swine flu outbreak that immobilized parts of Mexico, and prompted very uncomfortable "what if" pondering among border region authorities.

None of these possibilities are ever far from the minds of front-line officials such as Ray Sayre, director of emergency management for Santa Cruz County, south of Tucson. Sayre's Nogales office is a patchwork of maps and radio equipment, and he has at his fingertips phone numbers for endless colleagues along both sides of the line. For him, the quicker he learns of a disaster in Sonora, the bigger his chance to fashion an effective response.

As a result, emerging communications technology now shares space with old-fashioned handshaking as Sayre networks among everyone from Mexican civil authorities to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Since assuming his job this spring, for instance, Sayre has participated in Border 2020, a binational program carried out by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its counterparts in Mexico. Among other things, the program helps fine-tune responses to hazardous-material incidents among 15 sister cities along the border, from Brownsville, Texas, to San Diego. That mission includes regular sit-downs between officials like Sayre, and key people he relies on in Mexico.

In Nogales, it also involves a joint response team, with a real-time communications system linking Sayre to Mexican civil authorities. On a border more typically known for contention, such cooperation is refreshing. Of course, a powerful driver behind that synergy is simple, common purpose. "There are definitely robust 'You help me, I help you' protocols in place," says Sayre.

Those procedures are reinforced through dry runs and "tabletop," step-by-step rehearsals for what to do when things go wrong. For instance, one recent drill involved a mock chlorine spill at a checkpoint 21 kilometers inside Mexico.

The value of that training is real. In 2005, for instance, tankers careened off the rails 40 miles south of the border, spilling sulfuric acid into the north-flowing Santa Cruz River. It took mere minutes for American and Mexican response teams to arrive, with play-by-play communications continuing as officials contained the catastrophe.

Other crises are more predictable, such as last year when Santa Cruz County's chief sanitarian warned residents to keep their pets and children away from Nogales Wash after heavy rains sent Mexican sewage gushing north.

Creating the apparatus for dealing with such dilemmas draws on local know-how, federal funds and assistance from programs such as the Statewide Interoperability Plan. That's a fancy name for a project aimed at enhancing often spotty emergency communications among some 500 public safety agencies across Arizona. This ability to talk often marks the thin line between minor crisis and outright disaster. Emergency officials "can use whatever tools they have around the incident," says Michael Britt, a manager with the Arizona Department of Administration, which coordinates the program. "If they've got a radio system and everybody's on it, then it's a pretty easy job. If they're disparate systems ... then it's a little harder."

But achieving a seamless network will always remain a challenge, says Michael Sherman, who oversees the department's broadband and public safety communications planning. "It's one of those never-ending issues. Technology evolves, individuals retire, and the coordination between 500 entities will be open-ended."

Added in this mix are federal officials, who operate by their own proprieties. Back in 2009, Sayre's predecessor, Kevin Irvine, had expressed concerns about the federal response as a swine flu epidemic spread across Mexico. Thousands of fleeing Mexicans inundating the port could easily swamp the authorities, he said—regardless of their high-tech communications equipment. "If you have large numbers of people, as in thousands of people pushing in from that side, they could easily overwhelm the numbers of law-enforcement agencies on this side holding them back.

"It's one of those things we work out, and we try to think of the various possibilities of how you might be able to stem the tide," Irvine said, "how might you be able to divert people, to convince them to slow down rather than immediately heading for Tucson or Phoenix if they come across."

But four years later, have those concerns been addressed? When I raised that question with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, I received this email response: "From a pandemic standpoint," writes spokesman Victor Brabble, "CBP recognizes the importance of our role as the guardian of our nation's borders to assist with the identification of travelers who have communicable diseases and ensure that CDC officials are notified accordingly when ill travelers are encountered."

The CBP and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Brabble continues, "have worked in a collaborative interagency manner to develop policies, procedures, and protocols to identify travelers that are known by U.S. public health officials to have a communicable disease and to handle it in a manner that minimizes risk to the public."

Well then, nothing to worry about, right?

Not so fast, says Sayre, who along with disease outbreaks must also monitor cargo from Mexico traveling through his city by rail. Each month, that includes about 500 cars hauling sulfuric acid through the heart of downtown Nogales, en route to Tucson.

Then there's the matter of holding companies accountable for the damage they inflict, even when it occurs in Mexico. The 2005 sulfuric acid spill in the Santa Cruz River springs to mind.

It so happens that the Santa Cruz River also flows north, through Santa Cruz County.

When you're the cause of such catastrophe, rest assured that Ray Sayre will track you down. "If you spill your stuff and it affects my county," he says, "we're going to document everything. And we're going to back-bill you because you forced me to take an action to protect the public."