Only days ago, Madre Tierra was begging for water. Trickling south through Albuquerque, the Rio Grande resembled a patchwork of puddles on the verge of hydrological extinction. How fast the world can change.
In the past week, record rains and flooding hammered New Mexico and the Paso del Norte borderland, inundating streets, highways, subdivisions, trailer parks, and farm fields. Thousands of people were forced to evacuate their homes in Ciudad Juarez, El Paso County, at least three New Mexico counties in the Rio Grande and Pecos river valleys, and over to the east of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in Las Vegas.
True to the pattern in such weather emergencies, marginalized, underdeveloped and infrastructure-needy communities bore much of the brunt of the damage. In addition to at least 15 working and lower middle-class neighborhoods that suffered major damages in Ciudad Juarez, parts of the nearby Juarez Valley were topped with more than three feet of water. Pigs, chickens and home appliances were soon spotted floating in the debris. Juarez’s flood control infrastructure proved no match for the might of September’s storms, as small retention dams spilled over and water gushed out of arroyos, canals and the Rio Grande.
“My house suffered a total loss…,” lamented Griselda, a resident of the Revolution neighborhood. “We are going to try to take out what we have and at least recover something.”
Ciudad Juarez’s water department detected 19 street cave-ins, or sinkholes, in the wake of the flooding. Officials blamed the sinkholes, which swallowed at least one vehicle, on an obsolete storm drainage system underneath the pavement.
An estimated 350,000 students went without classes on September 12 and 13, extending the September 16 Independence Day holiday into a longer if unexpected break, while worker absences in the foreign-owned maquiladora plants were reported in the 50 percent range during the height of the storms. Although work crews and the Mexican army swung into action, some residents complained that officials were slow to react. Neighbors, community activists affiliated with the Pact for Juarez and the Telmex phone company variously volunteered their time or resources cleaning up the watery mess and collecting supplies.
On Saturday, September 14, Chihuahua Governor Cesar Duarte toured the devastation in the border city. Duarte issued a disaster declaration that should pave the way for financial assistance from the federal government’s natural disaster emergency fund.
According to one press account, successive city administrations have implemented only 10 percent of the stormwater projects proposed by the Municipal Research and Planning Institute back in 2004. At the time, municipal planners pegged the cost of the necessary overhaul at more than $100 million.
Neighboring El Paso County witnessed the flooding of Interstate 10, traffic disruptions and property losses on the Far East Side and Lower Valley, where low-income communities known as colonias proliferate.
In the small town of Socorro, for instance, trailer park and other residents grappled with floodwaters some locals judged worse than during the 2006 Little Katrina disaster, an event which resulted in an estimated $200 million in losses in the county.
As in Juarez, school was canceled in the Lower Valley towns of San Elizario, Socorro and Ysleta. Scheduled for the weekend of September 14-15, the Mission Valley Red and Green Chile Festival was postponed until a later date. Long-time Socorro resident Gerarda Lopez watched helplessly as her property was destroyed.
“We’ve lived here more than 20 years,” Lopez was quoted in the El Paso Times. “I don’t know what we’re going to do.” She later joined about 17 other Socorro residents who were lodged in a Red Cross emergency shelter.
Pockets of flooding within the El Paso city limits sparked criticisms of the municipal flood control system, which was given an uplift when a new stormwater utility was created and additional investments earmarked after Little Katrina
Cristina Montoya, El Paso Water Utilities spokeswoman, acknowledged the problems, but said ongoing development projects were moving forward and should eliminate major flooding in the future.
“It’s like a pie. We’ve completed pieces of the pie, but not the whole thing,” Montoya said. “We understand people’s frustration and the inconvenience it caused and we apologize for that.”
In New Mexico, meanwhile, Governor Susana Martinez issued an executive order on Friday, September 13, declaring the entire state a disaster area and making up to $750,000 in assistance available through the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
Martinez’s order readied the National Guard for possible flood relief, and directed the appropriate state officials to reach out to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for further aid.
Rural Dona Ana County south of Las Cruces is one area now requiring help. Among other places, flooding was reported in Sunland Park, Vado, Anthony, and La Union. Ironically, on the weekend prior to the big storms, hundreds of residents of Sunland Park were reported without water due to difficulties in well water flows managed by the Camino Real Utility Authority, a problem which has occurred on other occasions this summer. On September 10, three elementary schools even canceled classes because of the lack of water.
By many accounts, the town of La Union was the hardest hit by the flood, when water breached an earthen dam and left with more than 300 people without water, gas and wastewater services. Early reports indicated that water might not be restored for days, and residents clamored for action at a September 14 community meeting attended by elected federal, state and local officials or their representatives.
Authorities have established emergency shelter, washing and bathroom services. In light of the crisis, the Dona Ana County Commission is expected to meet in emergency session on Monday morning, September16.
Located between Las Cruces and El Paso, Vado was another affected community. Situated astride dairies, the small underdeveloped community, or colonia, has experienced repeated flooding in recent years. And this year was no different.
Rose Garcia, executive director of the Tierra Del Sol Housing Corporation, a low-income housing developer based in Dona Ana County, said the latest round of flooding left two, large extended families (including 15 children) without shelter after their paid-off mobile homes were destroyed by flooding. Among the victims was a woman who gave birth in the middle of the storm and is now homeless, Garcia told Frontera NorteSur.
The children, Garcia underscored, have been especially impacted by the calamity. “All of them are getting sick, getting colds at night,” Garcia said. An emergency shelter has been set up at the Del Cerro Community Center, and Tierra del Sol is assisting with material needs, Garcia said. “We’re trying to collect blankets…we need diapers,” she added. Garcia, who was involved in the relief effort for the 2006 Hatch flood, said the September 2013 events should invite a commitment to improving emergency preparedness and disaster assistance coordination.
“I think we all in the county, leaders as well as residents, could have a better, methodical process to respond to emergencies,” Garcia said.
As the rains taper off and the raging waters recede, public health concerns from mold, flooded septic systems and stagnant water will emerge as issues requiring immediate action. Stagnant pools provide prime breeding grounds for mosquitoes that transmit the West Nile virus. Last week, four new cases of the disease were reported in El Paso.
In the days ahead, government agencies will issue their calculations of economic losses from the flooding. The estimated preliminary losses include $80 million for Ciudad Juarez alone. On September 14, a man found dead in a car near Elephant Butte Reservoir between Albuquerque and El Paso was the first reported fatality of the regional flooding.
Additional sources: Las Cruces Sun-News, September14, 2013. Article by Jocelyn Apodaca. KVIA.com/Associated Press, September 14, 2013. KTSM.com, September 13 and 14, 2013. Articles by Sandra Ramirez and Benjamin Zamora. Nortedigitial.com.mx, September 13, 14 and 15, 2013. Articles by Beatriz Corral Iglesias, Paola Gamboa, Iris Gonzalez Meza, and Antonio Flores Schroeder.
El Diario de Juarez, September 12, 13 and 14, 2013. Articles by Antonio Rebolledo. El Paso Times, September 12, 13 and 14, 2013. Articles by Aaron Bracamontes, Maria Cortes Gonzalez and Juan Antonio Rodriguez. Lapolaka.com, September 13 and 14, 2013. Arrobajuarez.com, September 13 and 14, 2013. KOB.com, September 13, 2013. Article by Stuart Dyson. El Diario de El Paso, September 10, 2013. Article by Francisco Alarcon.
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Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico
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