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SANTA FE, N.M. — <b>Chama River overflows; governor seeking disaster aid</b>
Heavy rainfall in Rio Arriba County ended a temporary respite from nearly a week of wet weather, causing the Chama River to overflow Wednesday afternoon, flooding homes in the Chamita area.
Several homes were flooded near the junction of U.S. 84 and 285, about 10 miles north of Española, according to Rio Arriba County emergency personnel. The National Weather Service had issued flood warnings through 7 p.m. for west central Rio Arriba County.
Rio Arriba spokeswoman Erica Martinez, accompanying county emergency personnel at the scene of the flooding about 4:30 p.m., said about six homes were “halfway underwater” and water surrounded other homes and businesses all around the highway junction.
About 50 or 60 people, many of them local residents, were helping emergency responders with sandbagging in an effort to keep the floodwaters from spreading, and only one lane of U.S. 84 was open, Martinez said.
The Chamita area was the most recent flood victim after days of record rains pounded the state last week and over the weekend, causing flooding, mudslides and evacuations across New Mexico.
Earlier Wednesday, Gov. Susana Martinez prepared a request for a federal disaster declaration, which would make New Mexico eligible to receive federal funding to repair roads, bridges and other public facilities in flood-damaged communities.
But emergency disaster assistance provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, will not provide individual assistance for flood-damaged home and business owners, a FEMA official said.
“There is a threshold that states have to meet to qualify for individual assistance,” explained Estevan Lujan, spokesman for the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. “I think it is close to 200 homes completely destroyed, and at the rate we’re going right now, I don’t think we’ll meet that threshold.”
A majority of New Mexico counties have reported flooding, Lujan said, but state officials had received no reports of destroyed homes. However, a complete damage assessment has not been completed, he said.
Help won’t come from private insurance policies either, except for about 16,000 New Mexicans who purchased federal flood insurance.
Home and business insurance policies do not cover flood damage if the water enters from ground level outside, said Matt Kunkle, a licensed State Farm insurance agent in Albuquerque.
The exception is water damage from above-ground sources, such as a broken pipe or a leaky roof, he said.
“In order to have flood coverage, you have to have a policy through FEMA,” Kunkle said.
Agents can write policies for federal flood insurance, with annual costs ranging from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars depending on location, he said.
But New Mexicans have proven reluctant to buy those policies – only 16,206 flood insurance policies were in force in New Mexico on July 31, according to FEMA data.
FEMA officials in New Mexico began doing preliminary damage assessments in Las Vegas and Carlsbad on Wednesday in anticipation of Martinez’s request for a federal disaster declaration, officials said.
They expect to complete their preliminary damage assessments by next week, Lujan said.
Areas most affected include Las Vegas and surrounding areas in San Miguel County, rural areas of Catron County, Milan, Grants, Bluewater Village and Carlsbad.
The agency’s records show only 84 flood insurance policies in force in Grants, and 39 policies in Milan. About 160 San Miguel County residents have flood insurance.
FEMA assessors also plan today to visit Santa Clara Pueblo, located on the Rio Grande south of Española, where flooding damaged a medical clinic and other facilities.
Meanwhile, Erica Martinez of Rio Arriba County said the city of Española was in the process of opening a shelter for flood victims at the Beatriz Martinez Stroke Center on Paseo de Oñate.
“It doesn’t look as if we’re going to have to pull people out of their homes,” Martinez said. “Nobody’s life appears to be in danger – residents tried to evacuate before it got really bad.”
Yuri Almeida, a clerk at the Chevron station at the highway junction, said the water was “all around.”
“It’s a lake out there,” she said. “It’s a bad situation.”
Ryan Gronewold, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Albuquerque, said the storm surge likely washed out the river gauge at Chamita, which registered a sharp spike of more than 3,000 cubic feet per second Wednesday afternoon.
But Gronewold said the measurement was not likely to be accurate if the gauge had been washed out.
Outflow from Abiquiu Dam was reduced at that point, but Gronewold emphasized that the flooding did not come from the dam.
“We cut back when we heard about the flooding,” he said. “But we were only releasing 250 (cubic feet per second) and that is about eight hours upstream” from the flooded area.
The flooding would likely be over by the time effects of the dam cutback had reached the Chamita area, he said.