New Mexico Residents Return to Flooded Homes, Ponder Impact on Crops

New Mexico's chili capital tried to dry out Wednesday as residents salvaged valuables from flooded homes and droning pumps channeled muddy water from soggy fields and streets into streaming irrigation canals.

"God does this, and we can't do nothing about it," Maria Vasquez said, wading through knee-deep water to load a basket of clothes in her pickup. Along with her husband, she was heading to her brother's home in nearby Salem.

"We'll just try to take everything we can," she said.

One day after a downpour caused a diversion ditch to breach, flooding much of the small agricultural community with waist-deep water, the water had begun to recede thanks to pumps that constantly lifted water into ditches.

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The buzz of the machines was audible in nearly every corner of town, interrupted only by the chopping blades of Red Cross helicopters that ferried supplies to an aid center established at Hatch Valley High School.

By Wednesday, the high school had been "inundated" with donations of clothing and asked that people take items to the Red Cross, the Salvation Army or other aid agencies. The Red Cross also requested cash donations only, a news release said.

Crews and residents were exhausted after coping with flood waters and belongings.

"I think we're all a little sleepy," said Demetrio Alanis, who with Elephant Butte Irrigation District co-workers Francisco Gonzalez and Dan Bouvet stayed up overnight to drain 8 feet of water from a 2-acre chili field.

Hundreds of people in low-lying areas from Hatch south to neighboring Rincon were forced from their homes after the heavy rain proved too much for Placitas Arroyo. County officials said both sides breached, letting a wall of water rush into Hatch.

Gov. Bill Richardson said Wednesday he asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to join state officials as they tour flood damage in Hatch and estimate costs to public infrastructure as well as homes and businesses.

"I am committed to doing whatever I can to help the village of Hatch dry out and get back on its feet," said Governor Richardson. "Bringing FEMA in will help speed the restoration process for the community and citizens."

Richardson added that he will request a presidential disaster declaration if the damages meet federal aid thresholds.

Nicolas and Tomasa Moreno picked through their flooded house, grabbing food and clothing left behind when they fled.

About 10 inches of water remained in their kitchen, which sits lower than the rest of the cinderblock house. 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.

Many residents recalled the water coming too fast to take anything more than what they were wearing. Josefina Villa, who grabbed her two boys and drove to a friend's home, couldn't find her purse after returning to her muddy home.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," she said in Spanish, wiping away tears.

Police said they made a quick arrest after a hardware store was briefly looted, but most of the tales emerging from the crisis described how people came together quickly to help relatives and the elderly escape.

Willie Villegas, cleaning out the B&E Burritos store where he has worked since 1964, described the frenzy as he and his three sons went door to door in the rain, 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. "My boys helped her get out."

A day later, Villegas was sweeping ankle-high water through the cafe's rear doorway. The kitchen was under water, and Villegas worried that he didn't have flood insurance to protect his restaurant.

"In all my years living here, I've never seen anything like this," he said. "How can you plan for this? We live in a desert."

Still, Villegas was upbeat as he pushed the broom. Customers were calling in orders to the cafe, but Villegas said he planned to deliver food to National Guard troops, sheriff's deputies and other emergency personnel.

"They came right away to help us. I don't know what happened in New Orleans, but they were here quickly," he said, alluding to the slow response after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast last August.

Crews worked into the night Tuesday to repair the damaged ditch banks, Dona Ana County spokesman Jess Williams said. If additional rains fall, "we believe it will channel the water where it's supposed to go" toward the river, he said.

The National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning for Dona Ana County and other counties in southeastern New Mexico until Thursday morning. Roswell had its share of heavy rain Wednesday afternoon, and after nightfall, flash flooding was reported in Carlsbad and Alamogordo.

Water rushed down some Alamogordo streets and a center was set up at an elementary school for those affected by the flooding. Otero County Sheriff John Blansett said between 25 and 30 people were out of their homes Wednesday night and some roads were closed.

Inmates at the Dona Ana County jail and at Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility have been making sandbags, which are available to residents at area fire departments.

The mess in the Hatch Valley forced authorities to close all highways and feeder roads heading into the farming community.

Most of the highways reopened Wednesday, but police restricted access to some areas, including homes and businesses, until search and rescue operations could remove any obvious safety hazards.

Hatch 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.