The Southwest's 'Little Katrina' Revisited

By Kent Paterson

At the Pepper Pot restaurant in Hatch, N.M., visitors might be startled to see a hallway photo exhibit that shows the town under water and young men in a rescue boat. Best known for its flavorful green chile, arid Hatch is among the last places one might expect a flood.

Yet residents of the southern New Mexican farming community of about 1,600 souls are having a hard time shaking the memories of August 2006, the month when the Placitas Arroyo overflowed and flooded the village's center. More than 400 homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed and 500 people displaced. According to Lupe Castillo of the Hatch Area Recovery Team (HART), 95% of residents did not have flood insurance. After all, who would have thought about carrying an "unnecessary" expense in this irrigated desert?

Nearly one year later, many Hatch residents complain that they got the short end of the disaster relief stick. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) spokesman Earl Armstrong confirms that payments to property owners carried an upper limit of $28,500, with the average check ranging between $3,000 and $5,000 -- an amount many flood victims report was spent quickly on repairs, new furniture and bills.

Martha Morales' 84-year-old mother received $10,000 from FEMA for her flooded home but found that the money didn't cover all the needed repairs and new furnishings. "We're grateful for their help, but it's not enough," Morales says.

Simply put, FEMA does not fully compensate victims of natural disasters. FEMA's function is to supplement claims paid by private insurers. What's more, the agency funnels tax dollars to private insurance companies that make payments under National Flood Insurance Program claims.

The non-profit HART was established to help people who fall through official cracks, but spokesperson Castillo acknowledges that HART's fundraising goals have fallen far short of its $230,000 target. By the end of May, HART had raised about $44,500 and had spent more than $27,000, according to Castillo.

About 40 families from Hatch's demolished Caballo Apartments, which housed low-income farmworker families before the complex was flooded, now live in a FEMA mobile home park south of Hatch. The rent-free, three-bedroom trailers are spacious, feature a nice kitchen but lack closets. Trailer park dwellers complain the all-electric units spit out monthly bills of more than $100 from the privately-owned El Paso Electric Company.

FEMA initially planned the park with an 18-month life span in mind, and is offering Valentin Morones and his neighbors the option of purchasing their mobile homes for between $12-13,000. Even if credit-poor Morones lands a loan, he will have trouble locating affordable land for his mobile home.

Like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, eyes flashing dollar signs are staring down on Hatch. The small town is very close to the future Spaceport America, a privately operated but publicly subsidized venture that proposes to send millionaire tourists into space on joy rides costing $25,000 or more a trip. Advertising Hatch's proximity to Spaceport America, some land sellers are asking as much as $40,000 per acre.

An important economic development project of Gov. Bill Richardson's administration, construction of Spaceport America is planned with than $100 million in state and county funds. The facility will attract highly paid rocket scientists and other professionals. The FEMA park residents, who scramble to pay utility bills, are low-paid service industry, agricultural and government workers.

Hatch's flood refugees are a small group of the victims produced by the torrential rains that inundated a 100-mile swath of the Rio Grande Valley from Hatch in the north to El Paso and the Juarez Valley in the south last summer. Hundreds of millions of dollars in damages were registered on both sides of the US-Mexico border.

Approximately 20,000 people were impacted by the floodwaters. Six people died from flood-related causes, mostly around Ciudad Juarez, but Hatch luckily escaped fatalities. In both Mexico and the US, decades-old dikes are decaying, levees aren't built for 100-year floods and arroyos run free into the paths of homes.

"It's a time bomb that can go off anywhere in the valley," warns Gary Esslinger, the treasurer-manager for the Elephant Butte Irrigation District.

According to Paul Dugie, director of the Dona Ana County Flood Commission in New Mexico, which oversees Hatch and the fast-growing Las Cruces area, full modernization of an aging or non-existent flood control infrastructure just in the New Mexico portion of the watershed alone could cost as much as $21 billion.

Hatch's displaced residents could be among a new wave of environmental refugees coughed up by the parched but unpredictable lands of the borderlands. While the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change predicts long-term drought for the region, the flip side of the climate change coin is that when rains do fall, they could increasingly come in violent, destructive outbursts like they did in Hatch last summer.

Meanwhile, the psychological impacts of the flood could have long-lasting effects in Hatch. "You see a lot of scared people, and a lot of people have left," says public school worker Bonnie Duran. "Some people thought they didn't have any help so they just abandoned their homes. Others are trying to do something with what little they have."

Kent Paterson is a New Mexico-based freelance journalist who covers the Southwest and Mexico. Assistance was provided by Bread for the Journey of Santa Fe.

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2007

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