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‘Historic rainfall’ drenches state

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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

A massive “life-threatening and record-shattering” storm continued to soak the state Friday, causing widespread damage, historic river flows and evacuations.

Gov. Susana Martinez issued a state of emergency Friday afternoon, citing “historic, record-breaking rainfall,” and the National Weather Service said the storm could continue until as late as Sunday.

The devastation can be traced from northern Colorado, where flooding has resulted in widespread damage and several deaths, to tiny La Union south of Las Cruces, where residents spent Friday shoveling their way out of their homes and driving around sinkholes.

As much as 7 inches of rain had fallen near Pecos by early Friday. Numerous areas around the state saw 3 to 6 inches by then with much more forecast.

Fire and emergency managers in all corners of the state were braced for continued weekend storms, increasing sandbag orders and setting up tactical headquarters.

Much of Albuquerque prepared Friday evening for the impact of floodwaters headed down the Rio Grande. The flood was raging past dams at levels rarely seen since the 1960s.

Experts were projecting Rio Grande levels in the Albuquerque area to be 5 to 12 feet above normal.

The slow-moving weather pattern and the sheer amount of rainfall is uncommon for the deserts of New Mexico, said National Weather Service meteorologist Clay Anderson.

“That’s not something you see too often here,” he said.

The Rio Grande was expected to flow into the bosque and potentially reach Albuquerque levees, officials said at a late afternoon news conference. But the flow was not expected to rise above any levees, according to Mike Hamman of the Bureau of Reclamation.

“It will not threaten the levees in any way,” Hamman said.

The only potential risky spot, officials said, was an area of older levees in Bosque Farms in Valencia County, a frequent trouble spot in storms. Crews planned to be out overnight monitoring the levees to make sure there are no problems and to jump in to quickly to fix them if needed, said David Gensler of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.

George Enriquez, left and Pablo Romero survey damage along Sentenario Street in La Union. (Shari V. Hill/Sun-News)

George Enriquez, left and Pablo Romero survey damage along Sentenario Street in La Union. (Shari V. Hill/Sun-News)

The forecast calls for more showers and thunderstorms today with highs in the mid-70s. The storm might move out of the area by Sunday, forecasters said.

Parts of Rio Rancho got nearly two inches of rain, and parts of west Albuquerque got more than an inch. The rains forced the several-hour closure of Northern and Southern boulevards in Rio Rancho, a deluge that threatened to strand students at Eagle Ridge Middle School.

One man was rescued unharmed after being trapped in his car in high water at Southern and Goya, Rio Rancho Deputy Fire Chief Paul Bearce said.

Also in Rio Rancho, residents of eight homes voluntarily evacuated near 10th and Northern due to rains.

Parts of Las Vegas, N.M., looked more like bayou country Friday, as floodwaters from a raging Gallinas River spread from its banks to surround and sometimes flood homes.

Authorities said as many as 50 houses were evacuated in town, and numerous roads were closed in surrounding San Miguel County. There were probably some flooded homesites along the Gallinas east of town, they said.

County Commission chairman Nicholas Leger said low-water crossings and bridges out in the county had been damaged in what was believed to be a bit larger than a 100-year flood for the Gallinas. But no injuries or deaths had been reported.

The problems caused by heavy rain – 5 to 7 inches had fallen around the county, according to Leger – were exacerbated by an overnight rupture in an earthen diversion canal that is supposed to send some of the river water to Storrie Lake, a privately owned reservoir just outside Las Vegas.

The 20-foot rupture east of town meant all of the water in the Gallinas’ mountain watershed was rushing down the river – at flows estimated at as much as 20,000 cubic feet per second – and through the center of Las Vegas without the pressure release provided by the Storrie Lake diversion.

Las Vegas Mayor Alfonso Ortiz said it could take three or four days or longer to repair the broken canal. “We’re very, very concerned about that,” said Ortiz.

On Dahlia Street, part of a neighborhood of mostly trailer homes, numerous structures were surrounded by a new lake that extended far from the river bank. But most structures, placed on high foundations to meet floodplain code, didn’t have water getting inside.

Scarlet Branchal was watching the water lap about 2 feet below her doorway. “We’re sitting in the middle of the ocean right now,” she said.

“Our trampoline has floated away somewhere down river,” Branchal added. “It’s just crazy.”

Between 100 and 200 people were stranded on the west bank of the Animas Creek in Sierra County on Friday after rains pushed water levels above the riverbanks.

A few residents evacuated voluntarily, but officials had to call in the National Guard to assist with rescues and to serve as backup for forecasted Friday night rains.

A hospital helicopter was also called in to do reconnaissance of the floods there, according to Sierra County Sheriff Joe Baca.

A portion of N.M. 187 between Williamsburg and Las Palomas was shut down due to the flooding, in addition to several county roads. The county road between King Canyon and Caballo was also closed, and several apple orchards were flooded, Baca said.

The King Canyon Bridge sustained some damage and stayed closed Friday night, but crews had cleaned up every other road by Friday evening.

“I think this is one of the worst ones we’ve had,” Baca said.

Residents of the small southern New Mexico town of La Union had to break out shovels to help repair damage from the massive flooding that left numerous roads there washed out. They say they’ve had little help from county or fire department crews.

Dams that usually divert water from the town burst Thursday, damaging the roads and leaving homes flooded with dirt and water. A water tank that sits atop a mesa southwest of the town was also damaged, adding drinking water to the deluge, residents said.

“We’ve been the ones who have been shoveling since yesterday,” said resident Irene Ortiz on Friday. She rushed home Thursday from her job in El Paso to find access limited and widespread damage. “We’ve just been out there getting wet.”

It was still raining on Friday. Drinking water and gas were not available to residents, and it’s unclear when they would be, residents said.

No evacuations were necessary, and no one had been injured in the town of about 1,100 people. Access to and from La Union was difficult, but possible.

Patricia Medellin said she’s been calling county, state and federal officials about the dams, which she said were already faulty, since before and after the flood. The Doña Ana County fire department hasn’t yet provided sandbags to help with the flooding, she said.

“This time, it’s so bad. I’m telling you,” she said. “A lot of the roads are gone.”

Calls to the Doña Ana County fire and road departments were not returned Friday.

Meanwhile, Las Cruces, Roswell and Carlsbad were cleaning up from massive rains Thursday that closed roads and flooded homes.

A voluntary evacuation was underway for Santa Clara Pueblo residents who live in the west side housing area, according to Gov. J. Bruce Tafoya. He said about 12 to 14 homes were affected.

Between 4.6 and 6 inches had fallen in the mountains draining into the pueblo south of Española on Thursday night, and another 6 inches were expected to have fallen by the end of the day Friday, Tafoya said.

Residents sandbagged some areas around housing and tribal offices, and they dug ditches around the pueblo’s plaza area to drain some floodwaters, he said.

The flooding also threatened historic parts of San Felipe Pueblo, where flood waters inundated areas along the Rio Grande and tributaries. Water levels at the pueblo north of Bernalillo rival those of the late 1930s and early 1940s, according to the National Weather Service.

Also, 30 people were evacuated from flood-risk areas of San Felipe Pueblo, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and officials said floods threatened Interstate 25 as of 8 p.m. on Friday.

The 30 people evacuated safely with the help of the BIA and Red Cross, and they were to San Felipe Elementary School.

The evacuation order was only in effect for areas near the arroyo, which is rapidly rising.

Structures in the “old pueblo” were also in danger. Flooding in that stretch of the Rio Grande has reached 17,400 cubic feet per second, the highest observed since 1955.

Northwestern counties have been soaked over the last few days, and emergency crews have had to shut down major highways.

Bill Woolman, the fleet and fire manager for McKinley County, said he had ordered 15,000 more sandbags to anticipate more heavy rains Friday night.

“We’ve been getting a lot of flooding,” he said as he and crews rescued passengers from a truck that got stuck under an Interstate 40 overpass. “… I don’t know how long this rain’s gonna last.”

Crews had to shut down U.S. 550 north of Aztec for at least eight hours Thursday night, but some sunshine Friday allowed time for cleanup.

Debris was left on numerous roads in the county, Hatfield said, and the majority of the department’s districts were out dealing with water damage and flooding.

“They’ll probably be out (Friday) night unless this storm decides to pass us by.”

Also in northern New Mexico, Pecos Canyon had some voluntary evacuations, but no mandatory ones, as rivers rose with runoff and debris from burn scars.

“The (Pecos) River has been flowing over its banks since early this morning,” Pecos village treasurer Art Varela said Friday. “It’s taken out a couple of bridges in the northwest part of the village.”

The Frijoles Canyon section of Bandelier National Monument was closed Friday because of flooding, according to spokeswoman Chris Judson. It also will be closed today and possibly Sunday, she said.

“We’ve got a lot of mud to clean up.”

Meanwhile, according to the Los Alamos Monitor, there was flooding into homes in the Quemazon area of Los Alamos and on Joya Loop in White Rock. Los Alamos County was providing sand bags for residents at the Pajarito Cliffs Site, 101 Camino Entrada. But a police spokesman said Friday night there had been no evacuations and all roads were open at that point.

Journal writers John Fleck, Mark Oswald, Jackie Jadrnak and Aurelio Sanchez, and The Associated Press, contributed to this report.