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‘A Worst-Case Scenario’

COCHITI – They feared the worst, and it happened.

Two violent flood events within 24 hours pulverized Dixon’s Apple Orchard in Cochiti Canyon, sweeping aside hundreds of feet of concrete Jersey barriers that had been set up after the Las Conchas fire to guide water flow.

“It was the wildest thing to see,” said co-owner Becky Mullane, surveying the black muck left behind. “Those concrete Jersey barriers were just floating through like they were rubber duckies.”

A giant rainstorm caused a flash flood on Sunday, and then a second round of rain caused a repeat Monday afternoon as members of the family that owns the orchard stood by.

Some reports put the floodwaters at between 10 and 15 feet high.

Richard Dixon, father of the farm’s current owner, said he flew in from Minnesota and reached the farm at 2 p.m. Monday, just before the second flood.

“We saw the flood wall come in at about 2:15,” he said. “It was unbelievable. There was a semi-tractor trailer that it picked up and threw around and tore out of here.”

Many had braced for extreme flooding from monsoon rains after this summer’s Las Conchas Fire, which stripped a huge swath of northern New Mexico of trees and other vegetation. The big rains finally came over the weekend and Monday.

Bandelier National Monument also was hit, although the visitors center survived. The governor of Santa Clara Pueblo and others had to be rescued from a canyon late Sunday with help of a National Guard helicopter after the storms hit.

In Cochiti Canyon, the floods came one after another and left the famous orchard a soggy, charred mess.

Between 4 and 6 inches of rain fell Sunday, according to the National Weather Service’s Kerry Jones. Monday, a sudden afternoon storm dropped more – at least another 2 or 2.5 inches, based on radar estimates – the National Weather Service said.

Dixon put the storm in perspective.

“In 1949 we had a flood I would judge to be 10 percent of what this was, and we thought it was the end of the world.”

On Monday morning, Richard Dixon’s daughter Becky Mullane (granddaughter of the orchard’s founder Fred Dixon) was clearing soggy and ashen debris. She was joined by her family – which lives at the site – and dozens of volunteers. Much of the ground around the buildings and still-standing apple trees was washed-over, muddy blackness.

She said she had watched Sunday night’s event from high ground above Cochiti Canyon.

Jim Morrison, a news cameraman for Univision, was caught up in Monday afternoon’s flood.

He had just arrived at the orchard to report on Sunday’s flooding when a group of cleanup workers up a hill started yelling at him to get out of the canyon.

“I was trying to drive back out to where I would be above the water line, and wham, there was this wall of black water and trees,” Morrison said. Someone told him later the water was 15 feet high.

Morrison said his Chevy Blazer was wedged between a truck and rock and he was stuck for about 40 minutes before the water went down. Being stuck “saved me,” Morrison said. He said he saw a car tumble into the floodwaters.

He said he had to leave the Blazer behind Monday. “I don’t know what I was gonna do if it started filling with water,” he added.

Reminded of Katrina

The 156,000-acre Las Conchas Fire, the state’s largest wildfire ever, was hot enough to leave the soil hydrophobic – unable to retain moisture – so rainwater gathers into a flood instead of being absorbed into the ground.

Sunday night’s rainfall was just what Cochiti Canyon didn’t need.

“It’s a worst-case scenario,” said the National Weather Service’s Jones, who was surveying the damage Monday morning.

Mark Chavez, of Albuquerque Firefighters’ Random Acts charity group, was helping clear debris at the orchard Monday and recalled another devastating flood event. “This so reminds me of Katrina,” he said.

“We need disaster relief – state help,” he said. “We need more than volunteers with shovels.”

New Mexico Homeland Security Cabinet Secretary Michael Duvall said an assessment is under way to determine what resources the state could provide.

Harvest season at Dixon orchard is normally in September. There are still rows of trees untouched by fire or floodwater, with green apples dangling from branches. But structures are badly damaged and three ponds used to irrigate apple trees are gone. The creek that flowed through here now runs on a completely different line.

Mullane said she doesn’t know whether they will be selling apples this year or not.

“We don’t want to make any decisions right now,” she said. “We’re emotional.”

Other flooding

In Frijoles Canyon at Bandelier, stormwater overflowed the Frijoles Creek near the New Deal-era visitors center. The ash-blackened water carried logs and rocks as it roared through picnic and parking areas, according to a Bandelier news release.

But post-Las Conchas efforts to section off the visitors center from floodwaters, using a fortress of sandbags and Jersey barriers, appeared to work, said Park Ranger Chris Judson.

The water barely reached the edge of the visitors center bathrooms, Judson said, and the buildings do not appear to have been damaged. Employees fled Frijoles Canyon early Monday afternoon under threat of more rain.

After Las Conchas, 700 feet of Jersey barriers and 14,000 sandbags were positioned around the visitors center structures. The buildings were also wrapped in plastic sheeting.

“The barriers and sandbags held, but a lot of things moved around,” Judson said.

At Santa Clara Pueblo, a spokesman there said, floodwaters damaged canyon terrain but didn’t come near any structures. Barriers along Santa Clara Creek in the pueblo’s historic village held back high water Sunday night.

In Los Alamos, the heavy rain on Sunday flooded Water Canyon and West Jemez Road. Los Alamos National Laboratory spokesman James Rickman said the water topped the road by 4 to 6 feet, from a canyon bottom about 10 feet below the pavement.

He said about six concrete Jersey barriers were pushed off the road into the canyon by the rushing waters. But he said there were no reports of structural damage at the lab.

The city of Santa Fe’s Rio Grande water diversion system, below Los Alamos, emerged from the storm relatively unscathed.

Rick Carpenter, city Water Resources and Conservation manager, said the Buckman Direct Diversion system “was pretty fortunate from a water quality perspective.” Alarms did go off a couple times when turbidity in the river water built up, but the spikes were brief, he said. River diversion was shut down for a short period of time but, thanks to stored water, production never actually stopped.

“The system operated as it should have and we’re online producing water today (Monday). We avoided most of the bad stuff,” Carpenter said.

Rainfall of 1.75 inches was measured Sunday near the Santa Fe Plaza. More than an inch was recorded at locations farther south in town.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

See more photos in the Flood Devastation in New Mexico photo gallery.