Months later, New Mexico flood victims struggling to rebuild

What's being done to keep people safe?

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) - In one huge rush of water, New Mexico families nearly lost everything. Now they're left high and dry with no help, and a constant fear they'll be flooded out again. So what's being done to keep that from happening?

KRQE News 13 on Special Assignment looked into what's being done to keep a dangerous flood event from repeating itself.

It was a storm packing a punch that no one in the small pocket of Valencia County ever expected.

"In a manner of just minutes it just started to rise," said Elaine Montoya, recalling the flood waters that filled her home in late September.

Montoya was worried she and her family wouldn't survive. "I mean all our neighbors here were in the same situation."

Her home sits off Highway 116 near Belen in the Pueblitos community right across from the railroad. Her neighborhood got hit the worst.

To this day, Montoya's house is still unlivable. "This is how high the water was," she said, indicating about four feet up inside her home.

Homes, cars, furniture, priceless possessions were all lost in the flood. Montoya 's brother was living in the house when the storm hit. She stays in the back house, which didn't suffer as much flood damage.

No one was hurt, but Montoya added, "It's depressing because my kids grew up here. It's just not the same anymore, it's all gone. And there's no way that you could ever replace everything that was lost."

More than four months later, each room is a shell of its former self.

The cracks are noticeable along the walls from the outside of her home. Right now the Montoyas are still in the cleanup process, waiting to find out if their house is salvageable or if they need to tear down the entire thing.

Her elderly neighbors, Alex C. Romero and his wife Emilia, did have to tear down the home they built 68 years ago. Flood waters caused the walls to cave.

Josh Gibbs is another flood victim. He told KRQE News 13 back in October, "All I can count on is donations and volunteer work."

It turns out, that's the case for most people. Montoya and her neighbors are on their own.

"None of us had flood insurance," said Montoya. When asked why, she replied, "We never thought we were in that type of danger."

KRQE News 13 went to the county website, and according to its current FEMA flood map, some of the flooded properties are not in designated flood zones, and regular homeowners insurance doesn't cover storm flooding.

While most of Montoya's property is not in a flood zone, a small portion of her property near Highway 116 is. She says she's lived there for 32 years and had no idea.

"Someone should've told us," she said.

"People don't really know where the flood prone areas are," said Mike Hamman, the Chief Executive Officer for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.

Hamman said rural counties like Valencia and Socorro don't have the kind of flood mitigation resources that counties like Bernalillo have.

"They don't have the funds and the taxing authority set up to actually get enough resources in the more rural parts of the district," Hamman explained. "That's just an ongoing concern."

KRQE News 13 asked Valencia County just who is responsible for letting people know about flood zones. However, the county's Floodplain Manager said she can't answer that question since the topic is now at the core of a potential lawsuit.

A handful of residents plan on suing the county for negligence, claiming it failed to properly maintain roadways and storm drains.

Residents argue the Conservancy District bears some responsibility too, especially since it has a highline canal west of the flooded properties that breached in a number of spots during the storm.

"The water immediately ran down these arroyos and came up against our canal bank and broke the canal bank on both sides," Hamman explained, pointing to a map of the canal.

When asked why the District isn't liable, Hamman replied, "Well because our mission is only narrow to conveyance and delivery of irrigation water and drainage."

"We do have a flood control component to our authority, but it's strictly to the levees that protect homes and others from the flow of the Rio Grande itself - the main river," Hamman added.

The Rio Grande is about a mile east from the Pueblitos neighborhood and had nothing to do with this disaster.

"We do try to clean up and help as much as we possibly can, but we have limited authority and resources to work on private property," Hamman said.

But that could change. Mike Mechenbier has a pecan orchard near I-25 that was hit hard by the flood. Acres of his pecans were washed out.

The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District just negotiated a settlement with Mechenbier for $600,000 in exchange for some of his land.

Hamman said the district is working on a 'Drainage Management Plan,' and will use the newly acquired land to build stormwater retention ponds. He said that will help protect not only the pecan orchard from future flood damage, but nearby neighbors as well.

Plans will be drafted by July. Then it'll be at least a three year phased implementation process.

Meanwhile, families are still displaced, and the Montoyas worry about water quality and health hazards.

The Montoyas' backyard smells like sewage. Dead animals and debris washed up in her yard. For now, she doesn't allow her family or pets to drink their well water, until they receive water test results.

With no help from the District, the county, or insurance, residents are grappling with the thought that this flood washed away their life's work.

"I personally don't feel safe here anymore," said Montoya. "I don't wanna live here anymore but we don't have a choice."

"We're holding onto hope," she added. "That's all we've got."

KRQE News 13 asked Valencia County how often its FEMA flood maps are updated. The county's Flood Plain Manager replied via email, stating "Due to the high cost associated in remapping, a given community's maps are updated and published by FEMA only when there is significant statistical data that shows a change in the Base Flood Elevations or Base Flood Depths due to major development or changes of the topographic area."

When asked if the county has any future plans for flood mitigation, KRQE News 13 received the following written response from Floodplain Manager Brenda Alberts:

"As of our most current and updated maps, the subject area that was effected by the storm is not identified as a Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA) based on the criteria set forth by FEMA and flood insurance is an optional insurance for the home owner--if there is a lender then the NFIP is a mandatory and regulated by FEMA. Furthermore, because that specific area is not listed in the Valencia County Hazard Mitigation Plan there would not have been any mitigation money to address flooding there."

"According to the National Weather Service, we only received 3.6 inches over nine days and it contributed to the flooding in the area, but was not the cause. Because of our agricultural history and nature, there are numerous irrigation ditches within Valencia County, thus trying to have a plan for each ditch and making preparations for all the probabilities for each one is not feasible. Furthermore, the County's Office of Emergency Management consists of only one employee, thus conducting effective public outreach becomes extremely difficult to do especially with all the other required duties and responsibility of the position. It is fair to say that in regard to the storm event, the County did everything we could do and for most part went above and beyond to try and resolve the issues that were created."

The County's Floodplain Manager added, "In reference to flooding and water damage caused by the ditches--once again they are owned and maintained by a private organization. Because we have no authority over them, as an agency we cannot dictate them to do more than what they are required to do. Similar to the County's predicament, they also have staffing and funding issues when it comes to the maintenance needed by these established ditches."

Valencia County's Emergency Manager told KRQE News 13 the county couldn't declare a state of disaster for federal help in this case since it didn't meet the minimum threshold of homes affected, which is 25. Neighbors believe the count tops that number.

A lawsuit could be filed within the next month.

Photo Gallery: Valencia County Flooding 


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