KRWG

Floods Leave Residents With Thousands In Damages And Officials Working On Infrastructure

Aug 30, 2021

Credit Missy Morris

Mercedes Esquibel Herrera’s 100-year-old home was built room by room by her grandfather.

“I was born and raised here, all my brothers. And it's like a 100-year-old house, and I've done a lot of work to it and try to keep it up,” Herrera said.

But historic August rains devastated her Anthony home—leaving one wall collapsed and other rooms with cracks and holes. 

“It was very hard to believe it. I mean, I walked in, and I started crying,” Herrera said. “And I still do, just to walk in there and see it, you know. It affected me a lot. Especially when they told me it wasn't safe for me to stay there.”

The 71-year-old moved into a borrowed camper on the property.  Living on social security, she is unable to fix the damage without outside help. Her daughter is raising money for her through the online platform GoFundMe.

Herrera’s message to government officials is clear—while the rain may have stopped for now, better infrastructure is needed to prevent future disasters.

“We need help, we need all the help we can get, all the people who have been affected by this,” Herrera said. “Not just myself, but speaking for everybody. Because there's a lot of people that need help right now.” 

Mercedes Esquibel Herrera on her flooded property.

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham declared a state of emergency in Doña Ana County due to the heavy rainfall and flooding. County Office of Emergency Management Manager Stephen Lopez says money provided by that declaration will fund public infrastructure projects as mandated by the state constitution.

“We do not know what funds will be received from the state or the federal government,” Lopez said. “But by law, all of the funds that we receive have to go only for repairs to public infrastructure. So that'll be repairs to the dams, to roads, repairs to the wastewater utility system that was submerged.”

Lopez says the county is still trying to identify just how many residents are without flood insurance. While the number is unknown, Lopez says he has seen an increase in residents dropping flood insurance due to recent infrastructure improvements.

“One of the linchpins in this whole situation is a lot of people, because the dams had been improved, dropped their flood insurance,” Lopez said. “If they still had their flood insurance, there's a whole lot more we can do with FEMA to help those people.”

The county is currently exploring the use of additional money, like the American Rescue Plan Act Rental Assistance Program. While that could help renters, homeowners will have to find other means to repair damage. 

“We went in on the very first day and identified the structures that were at most risk and talked individually with those homeowners,” Lopez says. “That's now entirely their responsibility. By law, we cannot do anything more.”

Doña Ana County is focused on monitoring dams and making repairs.  Officials are concerned about two La Union Dams, one of which overflowed.  But they’re also worried about other dams that can’t hold large amounts of storm water.

“The Alvarez performed perfectly, but it completely filled up with mud behind the dam. So, it has no rainwater holding capacity right now,” Lopez said. “The Gardner Dam, even further south by Santa Teresa, is a failed dam structure. It was made by farmers back in the 60s..that dam is actively leaking water underneath which means it is close to a catastrophic failure. And if it goes that water could be a wall of water traveling over three miles.”

Lopez says pumping efforts to empty some of the water within Gardner Dam were massive, pumping the equivalent of an entire residential swimming pool every minute.

“Because it was not properly designed we've been having to pump the water out from behind that dam,” Lopez said. “They finished up finally getting the water down 10 feet below the top of the dam.”

Residents within Doña Ana County aren’t alone.  Nationally, more than 41 million Americans are at risk of flooding each year. According to the FEMA Climate Change Report, floodplains are expected to increase 45% within the next 100 years, largely attributed to climate change. Lopez says changes in floodplains are just one reason homeowners should purchase flood insurance.

“You may not technically be in a floodplain, but a floodplain may come,” Lopez said. “And so having that flood insurance not only helps you in the rebuilding process, it also gives us many more tools that we can then bring in to assist.”