Floods take towns, strand residents in Catron County

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Residents in the small mountain community of Mogollon in Catron County didn't have the chance to evacuate before floodwaters turned the only road in and out of town into a fast-running creek bed on Sunday.

The one person who did attempt to leave has been reported missing because he has not been heard from since he left on Sunday night. Crews are searching for this missing person in case he did not make it out of the canyon.

Weekend rains that continued early this week have caused flash floods in many communities in Catron County and around the state. Some residents were encouraged to evacuate from the nearby towns of Alma and Glenwood on Sunday when flash floods carrying large amounts of debris — much of it from recent fire damage in the Gila National Forest — into what are normally trickling or dry creek and river beds.

After rain all evening and into the night on Saturday, which continued Sunday morning, the San Francisco River, along with creeks and arroyos in Glenwood Canyon and all around Catron County, rose to overflowing the embankments. Residents reported more than 6 inches of rainfall in less than 48 hours.

New Mexico Department of Transportation, District 1 and District 6, had crews out overnight Saturday night moving rocks and trees off the roads and bridges, especially at Glenwood, where the Whitewater Creek flowed over the top of the bridge over U.S. Highway 180 and crews had to remove logs and debris from the top of Whitewater Bridge.

"The highway to Mogollon is washed out in several places, and around Alma on Mineral Creek water from arroyos washed out the embankment and Mineral Bridge and forced debris and mud over the deck," Wade Field Dixon of the NMDOT said. "Reserve and Datil patrol crews worked together to clean off Mineral Creek, as well as cleaning off other sections of highway from the 43.5 to 47.3 mile posts. Crews now are dealing with whole sections of fence line that are gone as well."

"We weren't evacuated Saturday night, but there were flood lights, firetrucks and ambulances on the highway here at the Mineral Creek bridge," Carolyn Miller Nelson, a resident of Alma, said. "They stayed all night."

Mineral Creek runs east and west through Glenwood Canyon. Water ran over the north side of the creek crossing U.S. Highway 180.

"This did cause alarm for the people in the houses lower than the road," Nelson said. "Fortunately, it made its own gully back into the creek above the road."

On the lower side of the creek by the Mineral Creek bridge, water came over a dyke through an irrigation ditch.

"This water plus the runoff from the hills caused the water to rise at the highway, which reached our back porch and had about an inch to go before it was going to be in our house through the front door," Nelson said. "It rose at about the same speed a toilet tank rises — very quickly. Fortunately, there were flood lights on and plenty of people to help — volunteers, the county and neighbors."

Some residents of Alma and Glenwood, about 10 miles east of Mogollon and down in the canyon, fled their homes for higher ground on Saturday night. They drove to the Glenwood school, sleeping in their cars, because the school was not equipped with cots and blankets. The school provided light, restroom facilities and some refreshments.

In Alma, one elderly woman was reportedly moved from her house into a neighbor's higher fifth-wheel trailer when water surrounded her house.

Throughout last weekend and early in the week, ranchers and other landowners in rural areas have faced challenges getting into or out of their property due to water washing out dirt and paved roads, flash floods carrying debris from upstream blocking culverts and clogging bridges, and waters overflowing storage tanks and waterways. Hunters are being encouraged to stay away from certain areas of the county, while some hunters already present are stranded in remote camps and cabins.

"Please, please, do not try to go elk hunting in the Beaverhead, Snow Lake, Bursum Road or Apache Creek area right now," Laura Bryant Schneberger posted on the GLGA SW ranchers buy-sell-trade wanted page on Facebook. "You will likely loose your truck and or be stranded for a long time. Nobody can get in or out. There is no support or service to deal with the stranded hunters from last hunt and no way to get support there."

The floods caused water damage impacting business for many local businesses in Catron County — from mud and water flowing into buildings, or impacting vehicles and equipment, to loss of business because residents are stranded outside of town, and visitors and guests such as hunters are also not coming in.

Police, fire and NMDOT crews are working to get the roads and communities back up and running if they aren't already. Hunters and other visitors are encouraged to contact local businesses or local authorities in the communities to which they plan to travel before going or canceling their plans.

Catron County is now responding to the flood damage with various cleanup efforts.

Crews are working with heavy equipment to re-establish the main road up Mineral Creek, in Alma, where multiple homes are located and 22 residents are still unable to get out of the upper part of the canyon. A new road must be pioneered in some areas where Mineral Creek jumped the banks so that residents can receive food and water. This work is expected to be completed by the end of day Thursday.

Officials are working to clean up the debris and clear the channel under the U.S. Highway 180 bridge over Whitewater Creek in case more rain falls. There is currently less than 3 feet of freeboard — the amount of watertight surface between the level of the creek water and the lowest possible entry point during flooding. Whitewater Creek was previously devastated by the 2012 Whitewater Baldy fire. There are currently three homes and one business directly impacted by the floodwaters of Whitewater Creek.

Catron County reported that New Mexico Highway 159, the only road into or out of Mogollon, has been totally destroyed from where it enters Deadwood Canyon southwest of Mogollon to east where it climbs out of Silver Creek and about 3 miles upstream of the town.

Reports vary on the number of residents currently residing in the community, between 13 confirmed by Catron County, to 17 or 18 as reported in other news. The community is without power and telephones. Local crews from the Glenwood Ranger Station of the Gila National Forest are packing in food and water to the residents.

NMDOT is working to pioneer a four-wheel drive road down Deadwood Canyon and the south fork of Silver Creek into Mogollon. This work is slow because of further damage to state Highway 159 and possible sinkholes reported adjacent to culverts that have washed out. The county estimated it would have some roadway pioneered by late Wednesday.

The National Guard has been called in to supply Mogollon with food and water. The terrain is narrow, steep and extreme, and will not allow for a landing place for the National Guard helicopter. As a result, supplies are being delivered on foot.