Arroyo warning systems gain attention

The Embudo Arroyo close to the place where authorities say three men were swept to their deaths in a flash flood almost two weeks ago. Advocates say those living transient lifestyles often choose to camp in channels that direct water to the Rio Grande, and some believe a flood warning system could be beneficial. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

On a blazing-hot afternoon last week parts of the arroyos that crisscross town were empty except for a stray jacket, a hat and empty bottles sitting in the shallow puddles and receding water left over from recent storms. Elaborate, brightly colored graffiti adorns the tunnels underneath Interstate 40.

No one could be seen in the Embudo Arroyo near Constitution and Pennsylvania NE where three men were swept to their deaths in a sudden flash flood almost two weeks ago.

But advocates say those living transient lifestyles often choose to camp out in the channels that direct water from around the city to the Rio Grande. This leads them to believe a flood warning system – of either sirens or flashing lights – could be beneficial.

Alexandra Paisano, director of the Albuquerque Coordinated Entry System for the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, said the organization has clients who say the arroyos are sometimes their best places to stay. She said she has heard of dozens of people living in tunnels not far from the coalition’s office.

“A few clients say they have had negative experiences when they go to shelters,” Paisano said. “… The arroyos are a place with a little more privacy. Sometimes they feel like they’re less likely to have someone come and tell them their camp needs to be torn down and moved. It’s a little more inconspicuous in the arroyos.”

The Embudo Arroyo, close to the area separating east and westbound Interstate 40 near Winrock Mall. City Council President Cynthia Borrego filed legislation encouraging the Albuquerque ditch and water safety task force to conduct a study to improve the safety of arroyos. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

And, she said, unlike the far-flung foothills or mesas, the areas around the arroyos are closer to services people might need.

But the arroyos can also be deadly. Over the past two weeks, five people have been swept away. Four of them died, and their bodies were recovered across town in a washout where the North Diversion Channel meets the river.

Paisano said she thinks a warning system could help save lives.

“It’s still a choice whether or not someone wants to be in the arroyos and take that risk; we can’t stop people,” she said. “But if we can make it safer, that’s one step in the right direction.”

Safety studies

Last week, City Council President Cynthia Borrego filed legislation encouraging the Albuquerque ditch and water safety task force to conduct a study to improve the safety of the arroyos. The resolution urges the study to consider, among other things, “a map of storm water channel, arroyos and irrigation canal locations where persons regularly frequent” and a report on capital improvements including, but not limited to “the installation of flash flood early warning systems.”

But the idea to implement a flash flood warning system in the arroyos is not a new one.

Several years ago, Gary Tinagero of Albuquerque Fire Rescue wrote a paper on designing a flash flood warning system. He recommended that stakeholders design a sign that would flash when danger is imminent. He also recommended an “audible warning device” that would blare in parks near arroyos.

Tinagero cited a 2007 paper that “suggested that inadequate warning systems are the primary contributor to weather-related deaths and injuries.”

“The paper showed that warning systems are geared toward the cultural majority and are less likely to reach the poor and elderly,” Tinagero wrote.

There are no plans for the city to get any kind of warning system for flooding in the arroyo, despite money previously being allocated to it.

In 2015 and 2017, voters approved a bond measure that included $300,000 and $250,000, respectively, for a warning system. The money was supposed to go to “plan, design, and install the arroyo flash flood indication system for the Embudo Arroyo to warn the general public of potential storm conditions that may exist within the arroyo.”

However, the city determined that a warning system would cost much more than $550,000. Johnny Chandler, a spokesman for the Department of Municipal Development, said a comprehensive system would cost $4 million.

Instead, in January 2020, the city council reallocated the money toward upgrading pump stations citywide.

“The money was diverted to pump system maintenance to protect property and life,” Chandler said. “Flooding houses can jeopardize life, as well, and it jeopardizes property.”

An Albuquerque Fire Rescue Crew posts up at the North Diversion Channel at El Pueblo hoping to rescue a person who was caught in the rushing water during an afternoon storm last week. (Robert Browman/Albuquerque Journal)

Brad Bingham, a drainage engineer with Albuquerque Metropolitan Arroyo Flood Control Authority, said that as a result of Tinagero’s paper the authority added a warning system to its project schedule. However, he said, it has not been funded and AMAFCA’s engineers do not have the ability or expertise to implement it, given that they specialize in drainage, not in maintaining emergency alert systems. Bingham also pointed to jurisdiction issues as AMAFCA manages the North Diversion Channel and the city maintains the rest.

He said AMAFCA has been putting up warning signs and supports the idea of a warning system.

Lives lost

On July 20, Alexander Corrie, 31, and Stephen Camp, 32, were swept away along with a third man who has not been identified. A week later, on July 27, a woman and a man were overtaken in another rush of water. The man survived; the woman did not. She has not been identified.

While flash flood alerts blare on cellphones across the city as storms roll in, Paisano said, the warnings often don’t reach her clients.

“Either they have phones and they’re dead because they have no place to charge them or their phones are constantly getting stolen, getting broken,” she said.

Family members of Corrie and Camp agree, saying neither man had a cellphone.

Video from AMAFCA shows the empty channel in the seconds before the flood rushes through. In a matter of seconds, it’s blanketed in water.

Bingham said the first flush is usually 1 to 2 feet high but the levels can rise very quickly depending on the direction of the storm and other variables. He said on the day the three men were swept away the water level reached 8 feet at Menaul and about 25 feet per second.

Both Camp’s and Corrie’s fathers said they had heard about a proposal to put flash flood warnings along the arroyo and feel like that could have averted tragedy.

Ronald Camp, Stephen’s father, said he is planning to come to Albuquerque from his home in Roswell and visit the place where his son was swept away.

“If they put up the sirens now at least it could be in his memory or something so no one else has to die,” Camp said.

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