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Flooded-out residents in Santa Fe face daunting task

July 31, 2018

Andrea Caldera was out with the hose when she saw the first lightning strikes in the distance.

“I thought, ‘Well, might as well turn this off,’ ” she recalled with a laugh.

The summer rains were here, she thought. Finally.

“Just a regular day in the neighborhood,” she said.

The first drops came shortly after that.

They didn’t stop.

And then the floods.

Caldera could only stand and watch from the relative safety of her far south-side home as the muddy deluge that swamped Santa Fe on July 23 tore out the sandy banks of the Arroyo Chamiso, violently washing huge chunks of debris down the channel that runs through her lot.

The white plaster walls that circled her family property served as a sort of dam, collecting mountains of dead plant life and garbage — until they were overwhelmed, broken and torn to pieces, washed away.

The aluminum roof that sheltered Caldera’s goats, chickens and other animals came down. The bridge across the arroyo was gone. So were about 30 chickens.

“You just stand here and watch all your animals drown,” she said. “I mean, what can you do?”

Caldera and many other flood-afflicted Santa Feans have spent the past week surveying the wreckage left by the 1,000-year rain event, collecting debris, making arrangements with City Hall to schedule official damage assessments, wrapping their heads around six-figure recovery estimates, working with good-hearted volunteer cleanup groups.

Trying to regain some sense of equilibrium.

“I think we’ll survive this,” said Dr. Steve Evans, an anesthesiologist whose basement off Ridgeline Road on the far south side took on 8 feet of water. “That’s really the only way to look at it. You have to look ahead. You can’t look down.”

Some said their work has been leadened with a grim sense of urgency.

The cleanup needs to be done quickly, they said, in case another brutal monsoon storm passes through.

“Oh, when it rains now, I get a little paranoid,” said Vivian Romero, whose midtown home took on water in several rooms, with messy drifts of debris, including needles and an 8-foot waterlogged railroad tie, washing into her yard. “It’s been an ordeal. But you take it one day at a time.”

There’s also this: No one prepares for that kind of flood. None of the residents who talked to The New Mexican said they had flood insurance.

But even if they had, the extent of the floods surpassed even the wildest imagination, complicating the recovery efforts.

“The biggest issue is just not understanding what to do,” said Johnny Gabaldon, a chef with a home near Ragle Park. “There’s no manual when your house gets completely destroyed, what steps you have to take.”

“It would be nice if there was a YouTube channel that said, ‘Hey, this is what happens when your house floods out, do this, this and this,’ ” Gabaldon added. “But it’s been a matter of finding what we felt were the priorities and dealing with them one at a time and moving on to the next one.”

“I don’t know how we’re going to do it all,” echoed Evans.

The recovery from the massive and rare rain event — Santa Fe has a 0.2 percent chance of receiving so much rain in such a short amount of time in a given year, a National Weather Service meteorologist said — has inspired a sense of rally-together optimism in some residents.

Romero, a recently retired compliance officer with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said she has been helped by a team of family members, friends and volunteers. A group called Random Acts of Rideshare sent volunteers to assist. A GoFundMe in Romero’s name has raised more than $2,600, with a $10,000 goal.

“I didn’t even know my neighbor up there,” she said, gesturing up the street from her flooded garage, past dozens of garbage bags filled with flood debris. “It’s amazing — the pour out of this love.”

“I’ve never worked so hard in my life,” Romero, 62, added. “But I’m not crying today — I’m out of tears. It’s all happiness with the help people have given. It’s God-sent, honey. We all came together.”

Teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will begin damage assessments this week, city officials said. City crews have assessed 141 structures and taken 430 calls, picking up curbside debris and connecting residents who need more cleanup help with volunteer agencies like the American Red Cross, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief and Team Rubicon, an emergency response nonprofit made up of military veterans.

City officials on Monday again reiterated that residents in need of assistance call 505-955-6949 to schedule an assessment.

“People are very self-reliant and they want to take care of themselves and do it their own way,” Mayor Alan Webber said. “That’s admirable, but what we need is accurate data on how much damage is done. It’s helpful for them to call the city and ask for help.

“I don’t want to raise false expectations; we don’t have money to fix their damage,” he added. “But we need to know how widespread it is so we can make the case to the state and feds that we need help.”

Caldera, who with her husband, Daniel, operates the El Molero Fajitas cart on the Plaza, said she felt city assessors had been responsive and was grateful her area had been annexed from Santa Fe County some two years ago. A group of Keep Santa Fe Beautiful volunteers were helping clear the street Monday; Caldera served them gorditas.

“I honestly feel you can’t appreciate it unless you see it firsthand,” she said, looking down on the collapsed roof of their animal shelter, the crumpled fences.

“I expect this to happen again any day now,” Caldera added. “We’ll rebuild. We’re safe. But I hope this is a wake-up call that the arroyos need to be tended to in a manner that they can handle this type of runoff.”

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