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New Mexico River Redirection Flowing Through Homes

The flooding emergency in Medanales came while other natural disasters throughout the state — such as flooding in Las Vegas, N.M., and fires in Ruidoso — have spurred evacuations and wreaked havoc.

New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham speaking in front of a camera.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's office had not issued an executive order on Medanales flooding as of Tuesday evening.
(TNS) - Elaine Padilla drove her pickup truck slowly through the new path of the Rio Chama, which as of last week was through the middle of her property.

She drove the length of her narrow strip of land, making sure to stay on what used to be the gravel road. Much of her property — including a handful of cars, a propane tank, a shed, a chicken coop and one side of her mobile home — was sitting in more than a foot of water.

"I just don't know what to think," she said Tuesday, her voice on the verge of going hoarse. "What to do."

Her dog Rocky waded faithfully through the water, following her truck. When Padilla reached the back of her property she gestured toward a long stretch of dry sand and silt.

"That was the river!" Padilla said.

Padilla is one of more than a dozen residents of the small Rio Arriba County community who awoke on Wednesday morning to find the river had redirected and flooded their properties, causing damage to crops, pasture, septic tanks, water wells and housing.

The flooding emergency in Medanales came while other natural disasters throughout the state — such as flooding in Las Vegas, N.M. and fires in Ruidoso — have spurred evacuations and wreaked havoc, gripping state officials' attention.

Eric Martinez, who lives on a ranch down the street from Padilla, said Tuesday 10 acres of his farmland was still underwater as the Rio Chama flowed across his pasture and back down into the riverbed.

Martinez, who farms his land in Medanales in addition to working at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said he lost about half this season's crop of hay and alfalfa due to the flooding.

Early Wednesday morning, heavy rains brought sand and silt from the nearby arroyos that feed into the Rio Chama, Martinez said, and so much sand built up in the river that it "jumped its banks" and began to flow across his and others' properties.

"It was the biggest rainfall I've ever seen, and I'm almost 50 years old," Martinez said. "It wouldn't stop."

Padilla said she was awoken by the rushing river's waters at about 4:30 a.m. Wednesday. Two hours later her house, well and most of her yard, including a half-dozen vehicles and a chicken coop, were flooded. Three of her chickens drowned in the flooding, she said.

Martinez helped to organize a meeting Sunday for Medanales residents affected by the flooding; more than 70 people attended.

A list of the community's "immediate needs" compiled at the meeting by Martinez shows 14 residents — many with children — who reported they lacked water, electricity, shelter or access to their homes. Others reported flooded pastures, washed-out driveways or thousands of dollars in losses of hay crops.

State Sen. Leo Jaramillo, D-Española, attended the meeting along with several county officials.

Jaramillo referred to the flooding as a "major disaster" for the small community in a phone interview Tuesday, adding the still-flooded residents remain in a precarious position as monsoon season is underway.

Jaramillo said he hand-delivered the county's emergency declaration to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's office on Monday, along with a request for an executive order that could free up state funding for Medanales.

The governor's office had not issued an executive order on Medanales flooding as of Tuesday evening, but spokeswoman Jodi McGinnis-Porter said state Department of Homeland Security officials were scheduled to go to the community Wednesday for an assessment, a step that comes before a potential order for funding.

County Emergency Director Enrico Trujillo said Tuesday his department was delivering water and helping to connect residents to aid through organizations like the American Red Cross. Trujillo said he was still collecting data on the damage and that his department has "a lot of constraints" regarding how it could help flooded residents, given the damage occurred on private property.

Trujillo said the county has been in contact with officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency in charge of Abiquiú Lake and the dam that releases water into the Rio Chama.

An effort to clear sediment from the riverbed and reroute the Rio Chama back into its natural course would likely involve the federal agency, he said, though it isn't yet clear how much time or money such a project could take.

An official from the Abiquiú office for the agency did not return a message Tuesday.

Trujillo said he would be stationed at the Medanales Community Center — which sits next to the community's fire station on County Road 142 — from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for the rest of the week. He encouraged residents to come in.

"I want to hear from folks about the damage to their properties and how this has affected their lives," Trujillo said, adding he is "standing by, waiting for that phone call" from the governor's office announcing a potential executive order.

On Tuesday afternoon, Padilla looked over her flooded yard and said, "it's been tiring."

For days, she has been living in a camper parked at the front of her property. She has been working daily to salvage whatever she can from her home — photos, documents, food — but her carpets and flooring are ruined. She is worried the blocks underneath her mobile home could shift or fail and the house could fall.

"It's too sad to go in there," she said, looking at her house.

She said she doesn't have insurance on her property or home. The land was handed down to her from her grandfather, and she has lived there since 1994, she said.

In the days after the flooding, her two sons helped her tow several cars and an all-terrain vehicle out of the flooded yard. One of them, a Honda Civic, sat next to her trailer on Tuesday with several inches of water still sitting in the floor.

A handful of chickens and two ducks were contained in a makeshift coop composed of fencing strips tied together.

Padilla cares for her son, 39-year-old Tommy, who she said is mentally disabled and suffers from bipolar disorder and mood swings. In recent days, Tommy was working to salvage items like bicycles and tools from their flooded yard, but she said on Tuesday he was at a relative's house, recovering from the prolonged stress.

She said she has not received any answer from officials regarding when the river might be cleared of silt to flow in its natural banks again, only that it's a lot of work and could take a while.

"It was grassy and beautiful — over there I had my garden, my chickens — it was so beautiful," she said, facing the banks where the river had been flowing only a week beforehand. "I have nothing now."


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