The term frequently kicked around is “hundred-year flood,” but if you can remember more than three such inundations in your own lifetime, that’s probably an inaccurate label to put on what Martineztown went through a couple of weeks ago. It might be more apt to call it a “12-year” flood.
Soggy residents of that venerable community close to downtown Albuquerque were so fed-up with a perceived lack of attention from elected officials that they organized a walking tour of their neighborhood on Aug. 21. They invited city, county and state policy makers to spend a couple hours seeing firsthand what they've been trying to deal with in this summer of unusually heavy rains.
It is a sad commentary on the superficiality and the frivolous nature of radio talk shows in Albuquerque that the parking violation given Lt. Governor Diane Denish’s automobile (parked too close to a hydrant) received more air time and comment locally than did the very real problems she had come to hear about directly from the mouths of several dozen community residents.
After tagging along on the tour and listening to victims’ descriptions of what happened and what needs to be done to prevent such damage from recurring, I took away some very definite impressions about what it will take to change the situation.
First, simply thinking of this type of event as occurring every 12 years or so rather than every “hundred” years would color this type of flood with more appropriate urgency. Few bureaucrats will expend any sweat or tears over something that isn’t likely to happen again even in their grandchildren’s lifetimes, let alone during their own personal tenure in city (or state) government.
But if this level of disaster strikes at least every 12 years (as old family photographs presented to the lt. governor by long-time residents of the neighborhood would seem to clearly document), then you public servants darn sure better get off your duffs and do something helpful, because the next flood could very well happen during your watch.
Second, the day left me convinced that our public protection systems have some glaring weak points that must be quickly addressed or we will likely have more disasters like this hitting again and again—if not in Martineztown, then in some other vulnerable location in the city.
It turns out that when residents described raw sewage (soiled toilet paper, human excrement, used tampons) flowing freely through their streets at the height of the flood, they weren't resorting to exaggeration. The stuff is still lying around the neighborhood, in yards, in gutters and even right out in the middle of the street.
An official from City Public Works explained how this could have happened, even though the two drainage systems, sewage and storm, flow through separate networks of pipes.
The city recently discovered a previously undetected “cross-connection” between the two systems near the Broadway pumping station. When runoff from rainstorms was too rapid for the pumps to push through the storm drainage network, some of it backed up into the regular city sewer lines … and when that volume was large enough, pressure in the sewer lines built until it actually popped manhole covers off and poured raw sewage mixed with rain runoff out into the streets.
The Public Works Department doesn’t know if there are any other cross-connections between the two systems. It seems to me that figuring this out ought to become an important task for local government … before the next 12-year flood (let alone the much more devastating hundred-year one) demonstrates irrefutably where such a cross-connection exists.
It didn’t help that during the flood several of the city’s pumps were turned off (ironically, to help insure that a “fix” in the cross-connection dried out well enough to be dependable) so that the system got overwhelmed much more quickly than it ever should have.
It also doesn’t inspire confidence to learn that maintenance of those pumps has been a low priority and that money intended for pump maintenance and replacement may have been diverted to “higher-priority” projects in the Public Works budget.
Finally, the walking tour took us to the sand and gravel hillside that looms over this entire community. A beautiful new Embassy Suites hotel, a Tri-Core medical lab building and another medical office have been built on the hills just east of Martineztown. They are sited on a parcel leveled off by pushing earth, rocks and gravel into the steep terrace that shadows the settlement.
Residents showed us how runoff from recent rains flowed straight down the face of the hill and how it overflowed a ponding area intended to protect them. They spoke bitterly about the failure of the developers to honor their commitment to put in plants and protective walls that could have prevented this problem.
Instead, the construction of the new buildings funneled runoff into their residential streets and yards instead of away from them. Apparently, once a developer is issued the permits to go ahead with construction, there's nothing else the city does to ensure their commitments are honored.
Martineztown got flushed badly in this flood. If we don’t learn from its experience such damage will certainly happen again (and in much less than hundred years). We’ve been warned. When it happens next, it won't be an “act of God” but a “civic inaction.”