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Help is on the way for many in Santa Fe County who’ve been snowed in

January 6, 2019

Barbara Anschel just wants to get out of the house.

Because of the heavy snowfall last week and earlier this week, she said, it’s been four days since she’s been able to leave her home off Camino Cerro Chato, about 35 miles south of Santa Fe.

With another — though milder — storm expected to hit Sunday, Anschel is one of up to 100 residents living along a web of private, unpaved roads off N.M. 14 on the southwestern edge of Santa Fe County who have been trapped indoors by piles of snow, awaiting assistance. Some voiced concerns that their food and water supplies were running low.

The area includes Baja Waldo Road and Red Rock Road, where other snowed-in residents spoke of similar woes Thursday. Some complained that the county won’t plow their roads, but county officials say they can’t provide snow-removal services on private roads without a declaration of a state of emergency.

Although many people remain snowed in, aid has begun to arrive in the area, tucked into what an Albuquerque meteorologist called a “snow hole” near the villages of Cerrillos and Madrid.

In a partnership with Santa Fe County, Public Service Company of New Mexico announced in a news release Friday that four of its employees were headed to the area to deliver food and water with a snowcat. The aid efforts were expected to continue Saturday if necessary, the utility said.

Martin Vigil, the county’s emergency manager, said in the news release that “PNM has been a disaster relief partner with us for as long as I can remember.”

In a later statement issued by the county, officials said that as part of the collaboration with PNM, county crews used blowers and graders in the area to clear some pathways for first responders to deliver goods and offer medical aid.

Vigil said in an interview that his team has responded to two 911 calls in the past week, in which trapped residents were transported to medical facilities. His office’s top priority, Vigil said, is providing food, water and medication to those who are running low, and addressing other critical needs.

Emily Graeser, a snowed-in resident of the area, said a volunteer county fire crew member also has helped provide feed for her horse, boarded three miles away from her house.

Anschel, who has lived in the area for 45 years, said she’s never seen snow quite like this.

Nearly 30 inches had piled up outside her door, she said, and between 4 and 5 feet had accumulated nearby due to drifting.

“It’s impossible to get out,” she said. “People have been stuck here for over a week.”

Anschel, among several residents who said they felt the county could do more to help clear roads, expects people living on Camino Cerro Chato to be trapped for “at least another five days.”

Vigil said a plow would be almost useless on the unpaved private roads that sprawl throughout the rural community. Camino Cerro Chato is covered with large pits and rocks, he said.

“They think a plow is going to resolve this,” he said, but “you can’t plow it.”

Even private plows hired for the job got stuck, Vigil said.

Graeser, who commended the volunteer who brought her some horse feed, said she’s been filling her days finishing a jigsaw puzzle and splitting wood. Her biggest concern this week has been tending to her 11-year-old rescued mustang.

For several days, Graeser said, she was either walking or cross-country skiing the three miles to her horse with a backpack full of feed. When Vigil’s office found out, she said, one of its volunteers stepped in to assist, leaving feed at the site so she wouldn’t have to make the trek with a heavy load.

“They’ve been wonderful,” she said.

Still, Graeser said she doesn’t understand why the county can’t do more to clear the roads.

“We know the county doesn’t maintain our roads,” she said, “but we feel like once every 10 years, they could help.”

Vigil said most people in the community are self-sufficient and prepared to handle such weather occurrences on their own.

“They’ve lived in the area for many, many years, and this isn’t a new experience for them,” he said.

Anschel disagrees. “This [storm] took us by surprise,” she said. … For some reason, we got hit much harder than most places in the county.”

A meteorologist said the sharp contrast between snow accumulation in the city of Santa Fe and in nearby areas during the most recent storm was peculiar.

Randall Hergert, with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, said his best guess for the gap is what he called a “snow hole” — when eastern winds come through lower elevations and then blow west of the city.

“Los Alamos lends to that argument,” he said, citing the 36 inches of snow that fell in some areas of that county during the storm — compared to about a half-inch in the city of Santa Fe.

Going forward, Hergert said, he expects conditions to improve statewide.

Although another storm is expected to hit Sunday morning with a mix of snow and rain, he said, it will be much milder than its predecessors. Santa Fe may receive about an inch of snow by Monday morning, while up to 6 inches could fall in the mountains.

The primary concern, Hergert said, is that overnight low temperatures — in the high teens to low 20s — could cause icy road conditions this weekend.

“Whatever snow melts today may refreeze overnight,” he said.

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