ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico residents began cleaning up and assessing the damage on Saturday after harsh flooding ruptured dams and claimed the life of at least one person.
State Police Sgt. Emmanuel Gutierrez said the body of a man was found in his vehicle next to State Road 51 in Ash Canyon, about 150 miles from Albuquerque. Investigators believe the man died after his vehicle washed into a ravine covered in mud near the Elephant Butte dam and was washed nearly a mile off roadway, probably Friday during the flooding, Gutierrez said.
The death is the first related to massive flooding in New Mexico this week from record heavy rains and overflowing rivers.
Officials said heavy rain on Friday caused the Rio Grande and nearby creeks to overflow in Sierra County — where the man was found — and forced an unknown number of residents to evacuate. The flooding also ruptured an earthen canal in Las Vegas and an aging earthen dam in southern New Mexico causing havoc and putting rescue workers on notice.
In response, Gov. Susana Martinez issued a state of emergency to open up recovery funding. The governor toured affected areas Saturday.
The ruptures came after parts of New Mexico saw record rainfall through the week and rivers began to overflow causing millions of dollars in damage and small evacuations.
The canal east of Bradner Dam near the village of Los Vigiles gave in late Thursday or early Friday, which caused flooding in the city of Las Vegas and wreaked havoc throughout San Miguel County, officials said.
Las Vegas Mayor Alfonso Ortiz said repairs could take days, if not longer.
In addition, three of the four major bridges in Las Vegas — Bridge Street Bridge, Independence Street Bridge and the Mills Avenue Bridge — were closed at some point Friday. All but Bridge Street later reopened.
“It is widespread and throughout the county,” Leger said of the flooding. “We’re telling people to stay away from water courses. If you’re safe where you’re at, stay there. If you’re home, and you’re safe, stay there.”
More than two dozen homes on the Santa Clara Pueblo were ordered to evacuate after floodwaters approached homes. The area had been hit hard due to the Las Conchas Fire in 2011, which created a burn scar and made the canyon especially vulnerable to a flood.
“Our first objective is always life, safety. We always want to protect life, safety,” Santa Clara Pueblo Sheriff Regis Chavarria said.
In Dona Ana County, heavy rains overwhelmed an aging earthen dam outside La Union causing flooded homes, washed out roads and utility outages. County spokesman Jess Williams told the Las Cruces Sun-News that no injuries were reported and he did not know how many people were affected.
“It’s yet another wake-up call,” Williams said, referring to the many earthen dams throughout Doña Ana County. “They were never meant to protect residential areas.”
He estimates the La Union dam is at least 50 years old and 20 years beyond its lifespan.
County officials, along with the American Red Cross, set up a shelter at the Del Cerro Community Center in Vado.
In Albuquerque, a flood warning was canceled as water levels for Rio Grande slowed.
Heavy rains also raised the Gila River by 15 feet in the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument area, causing significant flooding, officials said. That prompted the closure of the Gila Cliff Dwellings, the Gila Visitor Center and nearby campgrounds.
Meanwhile, the city of Carlsbad, which was in the middle of a multiple-year reconstruction project, saw close to a $1 million of damage. City Administrator Steve McCutcheon said officials weren’t sure who would help with the damage.
“We have set up a meeting with the contractor to review the contract and determine who is responsible to pay for the damage,” he said.