Pearce visits flood victims, promises action soon

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U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce and his staffers visited with Socorro County emergency personnel at their temporary offices in the county annex and San Francisco flood victims Monday afternoon as part of a whirlwind inspection tour of flood-ravaged New Mexico counties.

Karen Bailey-Bowman/El Defensor Chieftain: San Francisco resident Chris Lopez (left) discusses flood damage with U. S. Rep. Steve Pearce (right, blue shirt) and staffer Kenny Rogers (center). Neighbor Daniel Frazier also listens to Lopez’s report of last week’s Rio Puerco flood south of Bernardo.

Several families in San Francisco, a small community near the banks of the Rio Puerco south of Bernardo, were displaced last week when the normally dry river flooded, breaching a dirt levee that had protected the community from high waters. Ditch breaks added to the residents’ woes.

While he couldn’t promise federal money to repair or rebuild flood victims’ personal property, Pearce did say he would use his clout to pressure federal agencies to mitigate issues compromising public health and safety as well as public infrastructure. Pearce said he would also push for federally funded projects to prevent a recurrence of September’s flood.

This month’s weeklong rain event cost the county over $800,000 in damage to roads and other infrastructure, according to Socorro County Emergency coordinator Jerry Wheeler. That number will rise as more damaged roads, especially in the rural eastern portions of the county, are reported.

“The road department hasn’t even gotten to roads in the eastern part of the county,” he said. “Some of our roads have turned into gullies.”

That figure is in addition to the over $1,2 million in damage sustained by the county by storms in late July, he said, including the loss of the county annex roof torn off by a wind gust.

Federal and state funding will cover up to 90 per cent of the cost of work needed to repair public roads and buildings damaged by this summer’s severe weather, and 100 per cent of emergency repairs, Wheeler said. The county and state has already issued disaster declarations for this summer’s storm damage, including September’s event. Federal Emergency Management Agency teams have already completed their preliminary assessments for September’s event, but federal funding is awaiting President Obama’s signature on a federal disaster declaration. Once the federal declaration is made, FEMA teams will return to Socorro County and conduct a thorough examination of affected county infrastructure, a process that took over two months in 2010. Hurricane Sandy prompted FEMA to make changes to its procedures, which promises to shorten the frame for the release of federal funding for this event.

“When we’re looking at these things, it’s not a quick fix,” Wheeler said. “FEMA does a thorough review of each road and every public building that was destroyed. If we are fortunate and the cost ratio works out, we can get mitigation tied to the disaster, such as larger culverts.” Wheeler said there are “no guarantees” that federal help will cover the 75 per cent maximum allowed for the county’s losses.

Pearce assured Wheeler that he will make sure federal help is on the way.

“Our office will be engaged,” he said. “We will be there to back you up.”

“San Francisco had two houses sustaining damage,” Wheeler said. Water surged in from several different avenues because of breaks in a levee blocking water from a bend in the Rio Puerco as well as a Middle Rio Grande Conservancy ditch and the Unit 7 drain canal road. Wheeler said it’s not clear which government agency is responsible for the levee’s maintenance.

Pearce assured San Francisco flood victim Chris Lopez and neighbor Daniel Frazier that he will pressure federal agencies to act pro actively to protect the community from future Rio Puerco floods.

“We’re calling for a U. S. Corps of Engineers region-wide meeting,” he said. At the meeting, Pearce said he will advocate for projects such as deepening arroyos that have filled-in over the years and channelizing the Rio Puerco so it has a straighter pathway to the Rio Grande.

Lopez said his home was “completely totaled” by the flood. The old adobe walls have disintegrated, and all the wood floors have buckled. Lopez said he will have to demolish the house where he and his 14 siblings were raised.

In addition, thirty cords of wood he had split and stacked to sell this winter were carried away in the torrent.

His neighbor Rachel Lopez’s manufactured home is also a total loss, he said. Water didn’t enter the house itself, but flooded the crawl space, saturating the earth supporting the foundation. The house has shifted on its foundation, and the family is worried about mold and sewage contamination from water seeping up into the sub-floor.

“The water got up into the insulation,” neighbor Daniel Frazier said. The flooded septic system has also contaminated the yard around her home, he said. The family has had to move to another location because of worries about contamination from the sewage spill. Her dream of opening a small business in an adjacent building has been shattered. Neither of the Lopezes had flood insurance.

Several other neighbors have had floodwaters ruin their septic systems and contaminate their water wells, Lopez said.

Pearce and aide Kenny Rogers both said some FEMA monies may be available to help individuals suffering from losses from flooding if public health or safety is at stake, such as contamination of wells and grounds. Such individual relief could take the form of low interest loans or grants. FEMA money is normally reserved for repairs and upgrades to public structures.

Jesus Acosta, owner of Acosta Equipment in Alamillo, said Lopez asked for help cleaning up the mess left by the flooding.

“They were scrambling; nobody would help them,” Acosta said. “Chris was in a big jam, and he had no money.”

Acosta lent Lopez a 4 inch “trash pump” that pumps out 700 or 800 gallons per minute of debris-laden water and an excavator, “I was disappointed no one else would help them,” Acosta said.

Jerry Wheeler said the anti-donation clause in state law prevents the county from doing work on private property. The county was able to waive the fee to bring out a dumpster, although the residents still have to pay the tipping fee. County emergency management staff pitched in by passing the hat during a meeting, collecting over $200 in cash that was used to buy fuel for Lopez and his neighbors.

Men from the Rio Communities Mennonite congregation were hard at work gathering and stacking Lopez’s wood Monday. Mennonite women had prepared and delivered lunch earlier that day, Frazier said. Pete’s Auto in Belen donated additional pumps, and Chris Miller Concrete Company assessed the damage to Rachel Lopez’s foundation for free.

Frazier said the Red Cross arrived Monday, bringing water and other supplies, but Chris Lopez and his neighbors are still in need of help.

“Chris is going to have to rebuild,” he said. “He couldn’t get flood insurance.”

Frazier said Lopez worked hard to spare his neighbors from harm, using his tractor to break a ditch to let the flood waters drain from the area when he could have been working to save his personal belongings. Frazier characterized Lopez as a neighborhood hero.

“I buried my tractor three times,” Lopez said. “Now’s there’s no water, just a mess.”

An account has been set up at the New Mexico Educators Federal Credit Union to accept donations to help the families.