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CAÑONCITO DEL ENCINAL – Once clouds were a harbinger of hope, a suggestion that life-sustaining rain was on its way. But now clouds tie knots of apprehension in Grace Vigil’s stomach.
“It’s a daily thing,” Vigil, 60, said as she stood outside her home near Cleveland in Mora County. “I look for the clouds. This place has always been dry, but I’m starting to hate the rain.”
Vigil estimates that 10 times since the first week of July, rainwaters, unimpeded by trees and underbrush that had been scoured from mountainsides by the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, have flooded her property, an acre off a rutted road, beside a creek and below a canyon. On five of those occasions, she was home to witness it.
“You don’t ever want to see it,” she said. “You would not believe the way (the water) comes down. It starts with all this debris and this black stuff (mud and ash) and behind that you can hear the water, echoing in the canyon, like thunder.”
And then it’s there, 3 feet of it, running just inches below the rear windows of her home and bullying its way on toward her late mother’s house a short distance away.
“It’s a disaster. Look at all this debris from wherever,” she said. “And there’s no help to clean out and widen the creek. I’ve called like 20 people. They need permits. By that time, I’ll be dead. I see all this equipment coming and going. Are they just driving around?
“I think there are angels and a God. That’s what has saved me. I spend a lot of time praying.”
Still a crisis
It’s near noon on a recent Friday at the Neighbors Helping Neighbors Fire Relief center in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Volunteers are preparing lunch for people displaced by fire and/or flood.
“We continue to feed people warm meals. We do breakfast, but we concentrate on lunches,” said Janna Lopez, 50, the center’s director. “We have canned goods, clothing and household items here, we pass out Blessing Boxes, bundles of food and hygiene products, and we help with grant applications. We have a support group every Thursday with a licensed social worker. It’s a place to vent and get advice on how to deal with stress.”
Neighbors Helping Neighbors was organized by Lopez’s family and friends after the fires started in April. At first it operated out of the old Memorial Middle School in Las Vegas, but a few weeks back it moved to a building owned by New Mexico Highlands University and located at the campus.
“We had 200 people a day here during the fires,” Lopez said. “Now we have 15 to 30 a day. If they did not lose their homes to the fire, now they may have to evacuate because of the flooding. We are still in a crisis.”
It’s estimated that more than 900 structures, including homes, were destroyed by the Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak fires, both of which were started by U.S. Forest Service prescribed burns. Now, monsoon rains race down slopes charred hard by the fire, tumble over creek banks, overwhelm culverts, destroy property and litter the landscape with debris. In July, three people drowned when flash floods capsized a vehicle in a creek west of Las Vegas, and one person died earlier this month when a vehicle drove onto a flooded highway in Mora County.
“We need more funding, more contractors,” Lopez said. “The state and federal governments need to step up to help these people who are displaced.”
She said financial and physical aid has been slow in coming.
“Disaster relief crews are just trickling in now,” she said. “We need more help. Basically, it’s a lack of funding and a shortage of manpower. We have septic systems that are overflowing and roads that are washed out. People are staying in motels because they can’t get back home.
“The fire was the first disaster and now we have these floods, which are even worse.”
Never this bad
On April 22, fire destroyed a single-wide mobile home in Peñasco Blanco, 22 miles north of Las Vegas. Marcy Silva shared that home with her husband, 10-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son.
“We were able to pack some stuff,” Silva, 36, said. “My kids got their favorite stuffed toy. But what was left behind was lost.”
On this day, Silva is at the Neighbors Helping Neighbors center. She gets water here, clothes for herself and her children and information on grants she can apply for to help her family put its life back together.
“I’ve had to apply for a grant (to replace) appliances that were lost,” she said.
Silva works in information technology for New Mexico Highlands, and her husband is employed by the San Miguel County Public Works Department. They hope to get another mobile home some day, but now her family is living with her husband’s parents, who have an adobe home in Peñasco Blanco.
Since the start of July, Silva said her in-law’s home has been threatened by flood waters 18 to 20 times.
“The first time, we had set up sandbags and the water started coming over the sandbags,” she said. “My husband and father-in-law were out there putting on more sandbags and digging trenches. The water is 2 to 3 feet deep. My husband is 6 feet 4 inches tall, and it’s up to his knees.
“Every time it rains, we are constantly watching the water flow to see if we need to divert water or need to get out. We have been tough and have not left. But there’s only so much we can do. I have lived here in New Mexico all my life and have never seen it this bad.”
Didn’t ask for it
Rociada means “sprinkled with dew,” which sounds like a bad joke considering the pummeling from flood waters the community, 26 miles northwest of Las Vegas, has endured recently. Mounds of debris – mud, gravel, tree limbs, tree trunks, large metal culverts flattened or twisted as if they were made out of Play-Doh – stand along N.M. 105 in mute testament to the ongoing deluge.
“We actually didn’t get much damage from the fire, but the flooding is wicked,” said Delrey Trujillo, 38, who lives in Rociada, just off the highway. “It’s devastating. Not just financially, but emotionally.”
Trujillo, his girlfriend, Jessica Jaramillo, and their 19-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter live on property owned by Jaramillo’s family. Trujillo said the adobe house has been in Jessica’s family since the ’40s or ’50s.
The fire got close enough to their home. Stark, black columns that once looked more like trees stand on the scorched ridges of the mountains above them.
“It used to be nice and beautiful,” Trujillo said.
Forced to evacuate by the fire, he figures his family spent $5,000 for lodging, gas and food.
They’re back home now, but their place has been flooded at least 10 times since early July. The water has picked up 200- and 300-gallon propane tanks and moved them 75 yards or more from the house. A wooden shed was carried yards away and set down right-side up as if it was meant to be where the water placed it. A 5-foot mound of dirt, built behind the house as a barrier against the waters, was taken apart by a flood in 10 minutes.
So far, the flooding has spared the home’s living areas but spills into a space beneath the house, damaging the water pump located there. Trujillo has purchased three water pumps, ranging in price from $300 to $500 each.
“We have been using our own resources, and it is getting down to the nitty gritty,” he said. “They keep saying help is coming. I understand it takes a while, but we need help now, not next month. If it was not for the fire, none of this would have happened. We didn’t ask for this.”
Hard on everybody
Everything Trujillo and his family own remains in the house. They would be hard put to move it even if they tried.
That’s because three of the family’s vehicles – a 1998 Ford Explorer, a 2005 Chevrolet Trailblazer and a 2009 Chevrolet Traverse – have been disabled by the flooding. The water climbed up over the vehicles’ hoods to the windshields, depositing sludge in vital parts of their engines.
Using a fourth vehicle, which has eluded the waters, Trujillo’s girlfriend manages to get to her job as a nurse at a clinic in Mora. But Trujillo has been able to get to his job as a cook in Las Vegas only a few times in the last month.
“The scariest thing is not having vehicles,” he said. “There are a lot of people right on the edge now. No one wants to leave their home, but some people have been forced right out of here.”
Vigil and two dogs live alone at her home near Cleveland. She points out her garden, which the floods have laid waste.
“I’m so in love with this place,” she said. “I grew up here. It was peaceful and beautiful before the fire. I just wish it hadn’t happened.”
The sound of the nearby Cañoncito Creek is tranquil now, almost musical, but Vigil knows that can change with the clouds, with the next rain.
“It’s crazy. I think I’m on the brink of losing my mind,” she said. “It’s hard on everybody, a bunch of little villages everywhere and it’s affecting everybody.”