Floodwaters Reach Southern New Mexico Town as Rio Grande Continues to Rise

Pumps slowly drained waist-deep floodwater from parts of this southern New Mexico town Wednesday, while crews worked to reinforce a breached arroyo that caused hundreds of residents to flee their homes.

Authorities ordered residents living in areas from Hatch to Rincon, about five miles south, to evacuate their homes Tuesday after a day of heavy rain breached the arroyo and a wall of water rushed into Hatch, a town famous for its green chili peppers.

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Many of the evacuees were soaked when they reached an evacuation center at Hatch Valley High School.

"I have never, ever seen anything like this," said Andy Apodaca, 47. "It floods here a lot, as recent as last week, but not like this."

Nicolas and Tomasa Moreno picked through their flooded house Wednesday, trying to salvage food and clothing left behind when they fled Tuesday's downpour.

About 10 inches of water remained in the Moreno's kitchen and mud covered the rest of the floors. A water line on the outside wall of the home was about 3 feet above street level.

"All the material stuff doesn't matter. You can buy more. We're together; that's what matters," said the Morenos' daughter, Adriana Rodriguez, who lives in the home with her parents and husband.

Willie Villegas, the owner of B&E Burritos, described the frenzy as he and his sons went door to door in the rain Tuesday, urging people to get out.

"One little old lady was watching TV in her home. The water was coming into her house. She never knew it," he said.

The Dona Ana County flood commission warned that the Rio Grande, which runs east of the Hatch Valley, could rise at least a foot overnight due to runoff in Sierra and Dona Ana counties. Wednesday morning, the river was about a foot below the banks at nearby Las Cruces.

Residents who live along or near the river were urged to prepare for evacuation on short notice, said county spokesman Jess Williams.

Crews worked into the night Tuesday to repair the banks of the Placitas Arroyo, a natural ditch that connects to the Rio Grande near Hatch, and Williams said work continued overnight as the arroyo's banks were strengthened.

The mess in the Hatch Valley forced authorities to close all highways and feeder roads heading into the farming community. A command center also was moved to Las Cruces because of the high water, and school was canceled through Thursday. No injuries were reported.

Hatch, with about 1,700 residents, is one of the nation's leading chili producers and proclaims itself the Chili Capital of the World. An annual chili festival over Labor Day draws tens of thousands of tourists.

It wasn't immediately known what effect the flooding would have on this year's crop, which had been expected to be a strong one. Chili farmer Joe Paul Lack said heavy rain has hurt his crops in Rincon.

"There is definitely going to be a (chili) shortage if this rain keeps up, but I'm more concerned about the town — our churches and our schools — than the crops," said.

Tuesday's rain was the latest in a series of storms that have rolled throughout New Mexico in recent weeks, damaging roads, canals and homes.