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Recovery will be a long road due to unpredictable summer rains

Recovery will be a long road due to unpredictable summer rains
Recovery will be a long road due to unpredictable summer rains

By Danielle Prokop
Source New Mexico

On Tuesday, July 9, another wave of flooding occurred in the Ruidoso area.

Authorities say emergency responders have rescued more than 100 people from floodwaters in and around Ruidoso after the first round on June 29 and 30. Ruidoso is experiencing dramatic flooding and mudslides after rains hit areas burned by the South Fork and Salt fires.

Ruidoso Mayor Lynn Crawford opened a July 2 community meeting by thanking rescue crews and warning that the area remains “ground zero” for the impacts of fires and flooding.

“Many people were pulled from the water by our local rescue and whitewater teams. It was a miracle that there were no fatalities or serious injuries,” Crawford said.

Major General Miguel Aguilar, who commands both the New Mexico National Guard and the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, promised at the meeting to provide financial support to the state during reconstruction efforts.

“It will be a long road, we know that. Unfortunately, we will not be able to measure in days, it will take years until we are completely finished,” said Aguilar.

Aguilar warned that the amount of flooding after a fire is unpredictable.

“As many of you saw on Saturday and Sunday, that was a lot of water coming down the mountain at a very, very high speed with very little to stop it,” he said.

During the webinar, questions were asked about what flood protection measures are currently being taken in Ruidoso.

Crawford responded that the city had purchased barriers to mitigate landslides and flooding and was coordinating with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on an engineering plan to examine whether ponds could be built.

“There will be flooding,” he said. “There is a real possibility of a landslide in the Upper Canyon area.”

Concerns for Upper Canyon neighborhoods: On July 2, the city reopened access to Upper Canyon, an area hit hard by both fires and flooding. Crawford said there could be more closures throughout the week depending on flood risk.

“If it rains, we will ask people to leave the area,” he said.

He also urged people not to stay up there overnight if they want to check on their property, and reminded them that a boil water advisory remains in effect. “It’s not safe to stay up there overnight,” he said. “If it rains, there’s a risk of landslides and really serious flooding.”

“You can’t stop the water”

Challenges of monsoon forecasting

The unpredictability of the monsoons and the possibility of increasing severity make it difficult to make definitive statements about what will happen in the future, said Mangham, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service.

Because of the rapid onset of monsoon rains, the best predictions of where it will rain and how much rain might fall are only possible a few days in advance.

“The time frame is one to two days,” he said. “We can say that there is a pretty high probability that there will be heavy rain in this city or in this mountain range. Once we get past the fifth day, it will be much more difficult for us.”

Instead of the lack of monsoon rains like last year, there is a high probability that a monsoon season will be expected that could be slightly drier than average compared to previous years.

But this tool is inaccurate.

“The Sacramento mountains can get as much rain in a single summer as they do in three or four years, and the state as a whole could still have below-average rainfall,” says Andrew Mangham, a hydrologist at the National Weather Service’s Albuquerque office.

And the best estimate right now is that Ruidoso and Sacramento could experience a wet monsoon.

Flooding occurred across the city as heavy rains caused water levels to rise, sweeping away ash, soil and mud in massive debris flows.

It was thought to be a storm that occurred every 350 to 400 years, Mangham said, but due to changing climate, such strong storms are occurring more frequently.

“This is certainly not the only specimen of this species in this area,” he said.

Another factor responsible for the rains in New Mexico is the Atlantic hurricane season, which began explosively with Hurricane Beryl, which was downgraded as it approached the Gulf Coast but caused Armageddon-like damage in the Caribbean.

When storms enter the Gulf of Mexico, this pattern often brings moisture to New Mexico.

“If we have more and stronger hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, I think we have to expect an increased likelihood of getting moisture in and some pretty heavy rain, especially in southern New Mexico where the Ruidoso burn scars are,” Mangham said.

Efforts are being made to prevent flash floods.

Recently, the U.S. Geological Survey, a federal agency responsible for measuring rivers and streams, helped install monitoring devices to provide earlier warnings when river levels rise.

Increased monitoring will continue throughout September, with weather services being called in when rains begin, allowing more time to issue evacuation orders.

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