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Nature’s fury - Raging waters force evacuations

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By Martin Salazar

The normally sleepy Gallinas River came roaring to life Friday morning with such force that it tore open a gaping hole in a canal, flooded homes and at least one business along its banks, threatened the stability of bridges and forced evacuations of residences and closures of schools.

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No deaths or injures had been reported as of late Saturday, although a National Guard Black Hawk helicopter was called in just after midnight on Saturday to rescue an elderly couple whose ill-fated attempt to escape the El Porvenir area left them stranded.

Few in this community are likely to forget this Friday the 13th any time soon. Students at both West Las Vegas and Las Vegas City Schools were dismissed early. School for Pecos students was cancelled all together.

When the Gallinas River overran its banks, it flooded residences along Cinder Road, Valencia, Dahlia and other areas of the city and San Miguel County. The area on Mills Avenue across from State Employees Credit Union looked like a lake, and water in the river came close to topping the historic Bridge Street Bridge.

Local emergency management officials were so concerned that the city’s main bridges might fail under the pressure that they shut down the Bridge Street Bridge and the Independence Street Bridge on Friday and seriously considered shutting down the Mills Avenue Bridge. Police and firefighters stood guard over each of the bridges as the crisis unfolded.

By Friday evening, the flows had receded enough that all of the city’s  bridges were reopened. But those living along the banks of the Gallinas were holding their breath as lightning and thunder, followed by heavy rainfalls fell Saturday night.

Area residents have reason to be concerned.

Like a bad dream, the areas where the water had subsided swelled up again Sunday morning, and homes along Dahilia began flooding again. Sand bags were made available to those residents.

On Sunday morning, emergency responders were once again mobilizing as they were told to expect the river to peak again Sunday afternoon, Las Vegas Police Chief Christian Montaño said. He said they were expecting the river to come close to reaching Friday’s levels, which caused flooding throughout the Gallinas River corridor.

“We’re closing down the river walk as much as possible for safety reasons,” he said.

Montaño added that forecasters were predicting more rain Sunday afternoon and night, and the area could get as much rain as it got late Saturday night and early Sunday morning.

Mayor Alfonso Ortiz and San Miguel County Commission Chairman Nicolas Leger referred to the raging waters on Friday as a hundred-year flood, and Richard Trujillo the community liaison for the State Engineer’s Office, agreed.

“This is what a hundred-year flood looks like,” Trujillo said.

Gov. Susana Martinez and First Gentleman Chuck Franco viewed the damage by helicopter Saturday evening and then toured the Cinder Road area and met with city officials as night fell on Saturday. She also took time to talk to the residents there who were impacted by the flooding and to view photographs of cars submerged in water and homes surrounded by water.

The flooding came amid a major drought that has been plaguing this area and the state for years.

“It’s a blessing to have the rain. We just wish we would have had it a little slower...,” Martinez told reporters at the site. “We’ll take it however we can.”

Mayor Alfonso Ortiz and San Miguel County Commission Chairman Nicolas Leger said at a Friday news conference that it was too early to place a dollar estimate on the damage.

Runoff over-saturates ground
Counties throughout the state, including Mora, also had flooding, and Martinez moved quickly Friday to issue a disaster declaration, and she set aside $750,000 to deal with the situation.

She said she’d also like to see it declared a national disaster to free up federal funding to help local officials deal with the devastation.

The flooding was caused by relentless rains that pounded the area throughout the week. The ground became so saturated that it wasn’t able to absorb any more water, creating an increased runoff. The gauge measuring runoff in the Gallinas marked 1,500 cubic feet per second early Friday, but city officials say it was likely higher because 1,500 is about the highest that the gauge marks.

The increased water flow raged through the Gallinas River and into a canal designed to carry flood waters into Storrie Lake. But a major rupture in the canal near the village of Los Vigiles sent waters gushing into an adjacent property and back into the Gallinas River, leading to more flooding.

Brian Guyer, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, said Friday afternoon that the four-day total two miles northwest of Las Vegas was 4.39, while the four-day total three miles southeast of Las Vegas was 4.56 inches. Higher elevations received 5 to 7 inches of rain over the same period, he said.

By Sunday morning, those totals were much higher, with 5.67 inches of rain having been reported since Monday night at the Las Airport, according to meteorologist Jennifer Palucki. She said the highest recorded rainfall in the county during that period was near Romeroville, which received  7.4 inches of rain. The Pecos  area had received 5.75 inches of rain.

To put those figures in context,  Las Vegas during the entire month of July received 4.39 inches of rain at the airport, and that was considered one of Las Vegas’ wettest Julys in decades.

‘Copter rescues elderly couple
The rising river water prompted city and county officials to activate the emergency operations center Friday morning, and it remained open at the courthouse until 5 p.m. Friday.

Perhaps the most dramatic call to come into the center was a report of an 80-year-old couple stranded in the El Porvenir area.

Emergency Manager Dennis English said the emergency operations center received the call from search and rescue at about 12:40 a.m. Saturday. English said the couple, whose names were not released, had been in the cabin in that area and decided to drive out late Friday.

The couple encountered a bridge that had collapsed and became stranded when they were unable to backtrack because of the debris. English said the wife stayed in the vehicle while the husband hiked back to the cabin and called for help.

A National Guard Black Hawk helicopter was called in to rescue the couple. Once the husband and wife were onboard the helicopter they were taken to Santa Fe because the Black Hawk was running low on fuel, and Santa Fe was closer, English said.

Some evacuated, others didn’t
Besides standing guard over bridges Friday, city and county emergency responders went door to door in low-lying areas along the Gallinas River asking residents to evacuate.

Some heeded the advice, but many did not, opting to wait it out as floodwaters crept closer to their homes. Officials didn’t have an exact figure for how many people had been evacuated, though Ortiz said that in the city up to 50 residences had been evacuated.

Among those who opted not to evacuate was retired Las Vegas Police officer Clarence Romero, who lives on Cinder Road.

Romero said he got out of work at 2 p.m. and as he was heading home, he encountered city police and one of his neighbors whose vehicles were surrounded by water.

“We were trying to figure out how to get his vehicles out,” Romero said. It wasn’t until an officer asked Romero whether his home was OK that Romero thought to go check on his own house. He did, and it was fine, but he took up the county’s offer for sandbags just in case the water began getting higher.

“It was raining, so I said OK,” Romero said. Shortly thereafter, water began coming into his back yard. They managed to position the sandbags to keep water away from the his house, but when a section of his fence broke, water gushed in. More sections of his fence broke causing even more water to gush in.

The force of the water broke through his garage and carried off tools and other items in there, including a small trailer. It also took sheds on his property, and the water went underneath his home.

But he said some of his neighbors suffered worse damage. Romero said he does have insurance.

“Since I’ve been there, I’ve never seen that river get that high,” he said. “I’ve never seen the river come up anywhere near the house.”

Anthony Marquez and his wife, Michelle, who also live on Cinder Road also had a harrowing experience.

Anthony Marquez, a teacher at the Valley, saw that the water was high Friday morning, but he didn’t think it would get up to his house so he went to work.  He rushed home when his wife told him that it was getting closer.

Officers came to the door and advised them to pack up and get out. The Marquezes packed some of their belongings, but they decided to wait. The water got up to their driveway, but not into their home.

Disaster declaration for Mora
Flooding has also been severe in Pecos and in Mora County.

Several residents along the Pecos River spent Saturday pumping water out of their homes and property. Many fields were flooded from Pecos to the Villanueva area.  

In Mora County, commissioners held an emergency meeting Friday afternoon. The commission approved a resolution declaring Mora County a disaster area due to the flooding.

County Manager Rebecca Montoya said flooding from the Mora River and Rio de La Casa caused damage to fields, two homes and numerous county roads. She said Rio de La Casa caused the majority of the damage in the county.

“The waters were raging and plenty of damage was caused by all the flooding,” she said. Montoya added that a bridge in Coyote was under 3 feet of water.

“The front of a house that got flooded looked like a big swimming pool,” Montoya said. “Fields were also underwater.”
She said the Monte Aplanado area also received damage. The majority of damage was in the Guadalupita and Coyote area, she said.

Several roads throughout the county were washed out. County officials closed off one road near the Morphy Lake State Park area due to rocks, debris and limbs.

Editor’s note: Dave Kavanaugh, Mercy López and Art Trujillo also contributed to this report