BELEN — By Monday morning, Rachelle Hill was exhausted and in tears.
When the Highline Canal broke last Tuesday night, Rachelle and her mother, Vickie Hill, who is in her 80s, were at their home on Bernard Avenue. The flood waters quickly rose behind the house on the south side, and began pouring into the adobe home.
At about 100 years old, the house still featured its original brick flooring in several rooms. As the water crept through the first floor, Vickie said the spaces between the bricks began bubbling.
“We started stacking things up, putting them on top of plastic containers thinking that would keep most things dry,” Rachelle said.
However, as the water rose, the plastic bins began to float and capsize, dumping books, electronics and sheet music into the swirl of water and mud. Eventually, Rachelle had to stop trying to save things, and begin moving her dogs up to the second floor.
“Everything else was just going to have to wait,” she said.
The laminate flooring in one of the bedrooms floated loose and about six inches of water covered the entire first floor of the house. It was deeper in areas where Rachelle had removed the flooring in an attempt to find leaky pipes, which had quadrupled their water usage several months ago causing their bill to skyrocket beyond their ability to pay. This resulted in the city shutting off water and trash service to the house.
“It’s just been all these things and the flood made everything so much worse,” Rachelle said.
The city restored water service last Friday and arranged for a payment plan so they could begin cleaning the property.
Even with running water, Vickie and Rachelle were uncertain if they would be able to make the home habitable again.
“We can do it ourselves, but slowly,” Rachelle said with a sigh as she looked at the dishevelled laminate flooring. “I’m just afraid we can’t do things good enough and fast enough to prevent mold.”
The two women went to the Red Cross resource center at the Belen Public Library last Friday, hoping for assistance. They waited all weekend for a call, Rachelle said, and by Monday, she was at her wits end.
“We’re out of money, out of food. We can’t seem to get any help,” she said in a tearful conversation with the News-Bulletin Monday afternoon. “I just don’t know what to do.”
About an hour later, Rachelle called back to say they had gotten a call and were going to Belen City Hall to apply for assistance.
The monotonous drone of power washers, sump pumps and street sweepers continues to echo through the streets of Belen as residents and business owners mop up after flood waters washed through the Hub City.
The downpour began around 8:40 p.m., Tuesday, July 6, and as the storm continued, emergency services personnel were out, blocking off water-covered roads.
At about 9:30 p.m., the city received reports the Highline Canal at Delgado Avenue (near Belen High School) had breached, sending tons of water into the city. Crews with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, which owns the canal, were working on other overflow and silt situations, but did help with the breach at about 3:30 a.m., Wednesday.
Because of the breach, residents on Delgado, Castillo and parts of Gilbert took on significant water. The water flowed through those streets down to Main Street and continued down Reinken, Dalies, Becker and east to west from Second to Sixth streets. The water reached as far as Ross to the north and Bernard to the south.
While the breach of the Highline Canal caused water to flow into and flood the streets of Belen, there were other areas of the city that were affected directly by the heavy rains, such as Impala, DeSoto and others.
Multiple breaches were discovered Wednesday contributed to continuing water flows.
Mike Hammon, chief engineer and CEO for the MRGCD, said the district’s primary concern was two breaks in the Highline and two in the New Belen Acequia. There were also small breaks in the Garcia Ditch and other ditches throughout the county, Hammon said, totaling about 20 breaks in total for the event.
“We knew the storm was coming so we had evacuated about 90 percent of all the irrigation water before it hit; the Highline was running at about 23 (cubic feet per second),” he said. “We did what we could but these ditches are for irrigation. They’re built for small flows. Two year storm events we deal with all the time, but when you have huge storm cells like we did last night and in 2018 — 100, 200 year events that overwhelm everybody — our little canal can’t stop that.”
“It’s what you can’t see, and that’s the scary part,” said Mario Vallejos, owner of Elite Muscle, located on the west side of South Main Street, as he was spraying a collection of mud from the business’ entrance. “Some businesses got hit a lot harder cosmetically, but in reality, we’re all going to suffer with what’s to come in the future.”
Walking through his gym, water could be seen bubbling underneath the rubber flooring. When he pulled up a piece of the original wood flooring in the back workout room, there was also water below.
“My wife came out about midnight. We lifted electronics, everything off the floor,” Vallejos said. “She got home about 5 a.m., took about an hour break and has been out since.”
He also had a long night as he was directing traffic until 4 a.m. in his role as a sergeant for the Belen Police Department before being able to assess damage in his gym.
“It’s heartbreaking because it’s not only my business. Of course I want to bring attention to my business but I can’t. We (were) trying to stop traffic to stop these guys from flooding,” he said while gesturing to businesses on the east side of Main Street. “They took it really hard. It’s just who do you help and where do you go next? You can’t stop water.”
Across the street was a similar scene as people used power washers to move mud off the sidewalk before a small John Deere front-end loader removed it from the street. Inside the shops, people worked on their hands and knees to clean the floors of the sticky mud brought in by the flowing waters the previous night.
“We were here until midnight trying to block the doors,” said Maria-Alicia Cordova, owner of Al’s Styling Salon and business manager of the shopping complex. “This is the second time in three years that this has happened. So, the first time it was not as bad. I mean, it was bad, just not like this. The whole floor was full of mud, full of water.”
When the floodwaters previously intruded into the building in 2018, it didn’t flow down Becker Avenue as it did this year. Cordova is thankful to the community who has reached out and helped local businesses as they clean up.
In the same complex, Teresa Davis and her family had been cleaning their business, Davis Floral, since early Wednesday morning, following a long night of her husband and daughter trying to stop the flood waters from entering the shop.
“It was just coming from the walls, it was coming from the back, coming from the front,” Davis said. “As people were driving through (Main Street), it was just splashing it in more.”
She thanked her church, First Baptist Church of Los Chavez, for helping her and her family with the clean-up.
While Davis Floral has been in business for decades in Belen, they had only moved to their Main Street location after the 2018 flooding incident.
“This is just, it is what it is,” Davis said with a sigh as people moved around her, continuing to clean.
On Becker Avenue, Holly Chavez, one of the owners of H2 Academic Solutions, surveyed the mess at the building that houses the tutoring and academic intervention company’s office and classroom.
All of the vinyl flooring will have to be replaced after being soaked through with several inches of water and mud, she said. While there has been some flooding at the location, Chavez said it typically happened at the rear of the building. This time, the water came right in the front door.
“We covered the back area and put up a low wall,” Chavez said. “It held the water beautifully that came in from the street. It’s not a big building but it holds a lot of mud.”
During the 2018 flood, most of the water stayed in the street, but there was a lot more water this time and passing vehicles pushed surges of flood water into the building.
“One of the positive things is people showed up out of the blue to help,” she said. “We have a student, board members, employees. They don’t have to be here but they just came by, asking what they can do. That’s what makes it OK in the end.”
Next door at The GRID Gallery, owner Megan Morgan-Cordova and her mother, Lena Malcom, wiped down furniture on the sidewalk, thankful things weren’t worse.
“I was lucky my merchandise was up off the floor,” Morgan-Cordova said. “It’s mostly my own things that were damaged.”
The small gallery had several inches of mud covering its concrete floor when the sun came up on the flood waters Wednesday.
Across the street at Books on Becker, Merita Wilson said they learned some lessons from the 2018 flood — keep valuable books up high. Wilson said they lost about a fifth of a recent donation of 800 paperback books, but all told, the damage to their used-book supply wasn’t as bad as three years ago.
While water made it’s way into the store from the street, most of it came in through several compromised places in the roof.
“So, we’ll have to deal with that,” she said.
On North 10th Street, the campus of St. Mary’s Catholic School was awash in mud and standing water. The student drop-off area was a lake, sidewalks coated in slick, thick mud, the boiler room holding at least a foot of water causing a warning alarm to continuously sound.
In the new parish hall, the cafeteria, kitchen and gymnasium were under a pool of standing water and mud, turning the almost brand new building into a devastating scene.
“It’s everywhere — the kitchen, the bathrooms. Just everywhere,” said St. Mary’s Principal Melanie Chavez. “The gym, we took such good care of it and now it’s all going to have to be replaced. In the end, no one was hurt and that’s what matters.”
The facilities are insured and agents have been contacted, she said. Now staff, students and volunteers can only wait and clean.
The church’s cemetery, Our Lady of Belen Memorial Gardens, also sustained heavy damage as mud and silt descended on many grave sites in the old section. The fast-moving water and mud caused headstones and crosses to dislodged from their resting places.
Families and volunteers are spending hours upon hours shoveling dirt and debris from the cemetery, hoping another flood will leave their dearly departed alone.
At Dennis Chavez Elementary on N.M. 314, the New Mexico Chapter of the American Red Cross opened a shelter Tuesday night, which gave three community members a safe and dry place to stay overnight.
New Mexico chapter logistics lead Dave Bourne said the last client checked out of the shelter Wednesday morning. The organization’s first priority is to provide shelter and food during a disaster.
“We work in concert with local emergency personnel and local agencies,” Bourne said.
• The city of Belen has set up a flood assistance hotline, 505-966-2734.
• Emergency contacts for those affected by the flood: 505-966-2725 or 505-966-2730. For volunteers or donations call 505-966-2727.
• Sandbags are available at the Belen Fire Department, 116 S. Sixth St., and the Belen Water Department, 825 N. Main St., which is open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday-Friday.
• New Mexico Baptist Disaster Relief is assisting homeowners clean homes damaged by the flood in Belen. This service is free of charge. To request assistance or to volunteer, register at: First Baptist Church, 401 Becker Ave., Belen, NM, 87002, or call 505-506-5309.
• To inquire about assistance from the Red Cross, call 1-800-842-7349.
Also at the Red Cross resource center in Belen on Friday were siblings Alfred Sanchez, 74, and Barbara Horton, 73, who own two homes on the corner of 10th Street and West Castillo. This is the third time the properties have been hit by flood waters, Sanchez said — June 1969, then July 5, 2018, and again this year, on July 6.
The 2018 flood filled the crawl spaces beneath both homes with storm water, one of which is still empty and will most likely need go be torn down, Horton said.
After the 2018 flood damage, they raised the access openings to the crawl spaces and were able to keep the water out from beneath the houses this year.
Mud still coated the properties and standing water was everywhere, including in a garage that housed a vintage car.
“It was flowing like a river down Castillo,” Horton said of the water.
She stayed up all night, watching the water run past the home until 4 a.m., Wednesday.
Sanchez was critical of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District’s maintenance of the Highline Canal, which runs from Isleta Pueblo to the Mechenbier pecan farm just south of Belen.
“They are delinquent in repairing the Highline. They aren’t accountable to anyone,” he said. “We shouldn’t be hauling sandbags around at our age.”
The Red Cross also offers limited financial assistance for things like temporary shelter, as well as providing basic cleaning supplies and tools, like brooms, rakes and shovels, to community members as they begin clean up.
Senate Republican Leader Greg Baca (District 29) and Reps. Gail Armstrong (District 49), Alonzo Baldonado (District 8) and Kelly Fajardo (District 7)) issued a joint statement last Wednesday afternoon, offering their support to those effected by the flood.
“We are paying close attention to the flood emergency in Belen. While we are appreciative of the much needed rain, we are concerned for our community following the flooding last night. Please use caution in areas that are still flooded and follow safety instructions from officials.”
Baca spent Tuesday evening with first responders while they worked to close the breach in the Highline.
“Last night I was on site and in direct communication with DOT, MRGCD and the governor’s office to ensure assistance is being delivered for our community,” said Baca. “Now is the time for our community to band together. Please help your neighbors who are in need and if you need assistance please do not hesitate to contact the city of Belen or my office.”
The city of Belen has set up a flood assistance hotline, 966-2734. Baca’s office can be reached at 986-4877 or 385-7303.