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ABIQUIU – Terry Blair came to Ghost Ranch for some relaxation in Georgia O’Keeffe country, but Tuesday night she instead found herself fleeing the forces of Mother Nature.
“I keep replaying it in my head as I’m trying to go to sleep, over and over,” she said Thursday. “It’s a reminder that you’re not in control.”
Blair was one of 10 people who had to evacuate a fiber arts studio near the entrance of the ranch that was severely damaged Tuesday night when water from an overflowing arroyo tore through the lower parts of the ranch, a scenic conference and retreat center associated with the Presbyterian Church.
Three other structures, with no one in them, were destroyed.
Class had just begun in the studio, which was recently renovated, when heavy rain started to pour about 7 p.m. After the storm, which lasted somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes, water in an arroyo that runs from Box Canyon to the entrance of the ranch north of Abiquiu swelled as high as 27 feet and immediately threatened Blair and her fellow weavers.
“Someone came and warned us that there were trees coming down the arroyo and that we should get out of there,” Blair said. “They said we need to get out now, so I grabbed everything.”
Blair, a 61-year-old artist from Martinez, Calif., said her group made it out of the building, ran to their vehicles and drove up to the welcome center moments before rushing waters collapsed the outer wall of the studio and pushed everything inside to one side of the building.
“The water was five feet from the front of the cars when we backed out,” Blair said. “Just a few minutes after we got (to the welcome center), they said the wall collapsed, so we missed the arroyo coming through by about three to five minutes. It was that close.”
But that fiber studio didn’t get the worst of the damage. Pot Hollow, Pole Barn and Short House – all structures where students make arts and crafts – were demolished, and the Short House, where stained-glass work is done, was swept off its foundation and thrown against a tree. On Thursday, mud and fallen trees lay where the buildings once stood.
“It was one of the strongest wind storms and one of the strongest rainstorms I’ve ever been in,” said Tom Nichols, who teaches metal sculpting in the largely open-air Pole Barn. “The buildings just took a terrible beating. It’s just a jumbled mess. This classroom that we are standing in now, it was wiped clean. There are usually tables and chairs and pottery wheels in this area – they’re all strewn downstream.”
Ghost Ranch Executive Director Debra Hepler said the damage could add up to around $500,000. The ranch has a $100,000 insurance deductible.
“All of this will have to be rebuilt, and probably in a different location,” Hepler said, standing near where the Short House used to be.
“We won’t rebuild in this area. It’s not so safe, and I’m not sure the insurance company would insure it again if we built down here. We have had people who have lived here their whole lives say that they have never seen anything like this happen here, but we don’t want to take that chance again.”
Hepler says no classes were scheduled in the area Tuesday night, but about 35 campers had to be moved to a dorm-style lodge, and the dining hall was open until about 10 p.m. on Tuesday for anyone seeking refuge from the storm.
About 350 people were at the ranch, which offers programs ranging from painting to yoga to pueblo culture over the summer. Many New Mexicans go to the ranch just to hike the red-dirt landscape.
World-renowned painter O’Keeffe lived and worked on the ranch, in a portion now restricted to special tours.
No one was hurt in the flood, and all guests and staff are accounted for, but the situation brought back terrible memories for some.
Blair, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from a childhood incident, says the storm made her uneasy.
“I’m still not sleeping very well,” Blair said. “It was frightening. When we saw the water coming towards us at the cars, we knew it was really close, and we all have a little, tiny touch of PTSD.”
Hepler says a lot of people who frequent Ghost Ranch do so to get away from their troubles, so she and her staff did what they could to continue the healing process. A worship service was held Wednesday morning, and there were counselors available for anyone who needed them.
“Something like this brings up lots of trauma,” Education Director Stephen Picha said. “This is a real healing space, so we’re just trying to be very mindful of that.”
But the ranch is going to need a hand in its own healing process, too. People have offered to help clean up the mess, but Hepler said professionals might have to be called in on this one.
“I think we’re really going to have to have a disaster recovery company come in and do this,” Hepler said. “I don’t want to put any of our employees or volunteers at risk. We’ve had tons of people who want to volunteer to come help clean it up, and we can probably do that in some areas, but we have metal protruding and things like that, so we’re probably going to have a professional company come in and do this for us.”
But the ranch and those affected will move on. Hepler said that people who were taking classes in the ruined structures have been moved to other locations, and that everything else at the ranch is business as usual.
Blair said she is going to document the night the arroyo overcame her beloved studio by immortalizing it on a tapestry. After all, Ghost Ranch is supposed to be a place of healing. “That’s what you do as an artist,” Blair said. “You document your experiences and express it.”