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Las Cruces Sun News Article on La Union Flooding: Aug 12-14, 2021

Roads became rivers: What's next for La Union after monumental flood?

by: Lucas Peerman Las Cruces Sun-News

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LAS CRUCES - The colonia of La Union in southern Doña Ana County sustained massive flood damage this past week, leading to mandatory evacuations and emergency declarations.

The nearly 100-year flood destroyed roads, sunk vehicles and likely altered lives and livelihoods within the agricultural village located north of Santa Teresa and west of Canutillo, Texas.

County officials met with news media Sunday at the Office of Emergency Management facilities in Las Cruces to relay the latest information:

Most importantly, evacuations are still in place while county officials get a handle on the damage to community infrastructure.

“Until we can visually inspect those structures, we cannot place people at risk by allowing them in," said Doña Ana County Sheriff Kim Stewart, who noted the mandate barring residents from entering the flood zone will be in effect through at least Sunday evening.

Stewart said officials will be assessing the structural integrity of roads and buildings, as well as ensuring utilities are able to operate efficiently before allowing residents to return.

Flooding caused a water outage for about 426 residents, she said, and officials are working to restore the flow of potable and unpotable water.

People who need assistance are encouraged to go to the American Red Cross evacuation center at the Anthony Senior Community Center, 875 Anthony Drive in Anthony, N.M.

From the archives: 1935 Las Cruces flood the worst the city's seen

Secondly, it could've been worse. A lot worse.

Nearly a 100-year flood

John Gwynne, the county's flood commission director, said La Union received 2.2 inches of rain in two hours Thursday evening. To reach the designated 100-year-flood status, that area would have needed to get 2.6 inches of rain in two hours.

Still, the torrential rain stressed area earthen dams to their breaking points, but the structures built by farmers in the mid-1900s for the most part did what they were designed to do and held, Gwynne said.

He said officials are monitoring five dams in the area, which protect communities from water running off the west mesa into the Rio Grande valley:

  • La Union A Dam and La Union B Dam, which protect La Union

  • Gardner Dam, which protects the homes off Koogle Road and Cielo Dorado, an upscale community that includes an airstrip.

  • Alvarez Dam, which protects the farming community between La Union to the north and Koogle Road to the south.

  • Little Halla Wilson Dam, which protects the areas around Gadsden High School, north of La Union.

Water did flow over the top and around La Union B Dam, causing major damage to the structure in the process. But the dam held. A breach would have been catastrophic, Gwynne said.

As it were, the water that did get past La Union B Dam took a centuries-old path to the valley below — Palomas Street. The street, paved over a one-time arroyo, offered the path of least resistance for the floodwater, becoming Palomas River on Thursday night. It's once again an arroyo.

"Palomas is washed away," Stewart said, one of several roads that no longer exists.

Other roads in La Union that may be impassable:

  • Visnaga Street

  • Telles Avenue

  • Conejo Road

  • Sentenario Street

  • Mendez Street

  • Salome Hernandez Street

  • Casad Road

Looking back

Rain that started Thursday evening continued to fall Friday and into Saturday. From Thursday morning to Saturday morning, La Union recorded 5.88 inches of rain. Only 3.9 inches of rain had fallen in La Union the entire year, before the storms, according to Community Collaborate Rain, Hail and Snow Network data.

Stewart said county officials started receiving calls for help Thursday night. By Friday evening, the Doña Ana County Commission was asking the state for help and by Saturday morning, evacuations were ordered for about 24 residences — affecting 50 to 60 people — for those in the northern part of La Union.

Shannon Cherry, the county's fire chief, and Stewart each said they were not aware of anyone whose life was immediately threatened by the floodwaters in La Union.

However, Cherry said the flood wiped out vehicles and roads, stranding residents inside. County fire officials spent Friday and Saturday helping residents evacuate to the temporary evacuation shelter at Anthony Elementary School. The residents who self-evacuated Saturday found themselves wading in waist-deep water.

County officials also advised about 50 more residences nearby La Union — especially those on Koogle Road — to evacuate.

Gardner Dam was close to overflowing and with no spillway, county officials had to pump water out — the equivalent of a residential swimming pool every minute. Gardner Dam is much larger than the other dams and a breach would have sent a mountain of water cascading into the valley, possibly washing away homes on Koogle Road.

Gwynne said the water levels behind the dams in southern Doña Ana County have dropped significantly and, barring another huge rainstorm, residents should be OK.

Moving forward

Robert Armijo, the county's chief roads engineer, is charged with rebuilding the infrastructure in La Union in the immediate aftermath of the flooding. He said the process could take months.

“Please be patient and slow down,” Armijo said. “Our crews are working hard and putting in long hours, with heavy equipment and it is more dangerous work each time it rains. Please do not jeopardize their safety, nor your own.”

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Sunday signed an executive order declaring a state of emergency in Doña Ana County.

The order allows local governments to unlock support and funding — up to $750,000 in recovery efforts. The funds cannot be used for direct financial assistance to residents.

This declaration also means affected localities within the county could be eligible for state and federal assistance and also authorizes the activation of the New Mexico National Guard for support, if necessary.

“This declaration will help us partner more effectively with the state's resources in hopes of protecting all citizens and first responders throughout this emergency," Stewart said.