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New Mexico village is on alert as devastating flash floods follow June wildfires

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's been one thing after another for the mountain town of Ruidoso, N.M. In June, wildfires turned deadly and forced the evacuation of many residents. Today, Ruidoso remained under flood watch after first responders rescued more than 160 people from flooding over the weekend. Johnny Coker of member station KRWG is covering the situation and joins us from Las Cruces, N.M. Hi there.

JOHNNY COKER, BYLINE: Hey. How's it going?

SHAPIRO: All right. So what does Ruidoso look like today?

COKER: Well, right now it's looking pretty clear, but there are storms building that have the chance to bring rainfall later to the area this evening. The National Weather Service says there's a 60% chance of rain, so not much, but we've seen that even a short thunderstorm in the wrong place can cause significant flooding.

SHAPIRO: And have people left town given everything that's gone on just in the last month?

COKER: I mean, most people left when the wildfires that started this whole thing back in mid-June got bad. When they hit, the whole village was placed under mandatory evacuation, so that was about 8,000 people. And an estimated 1,400 structures were lost in the fires, which burned over 25,000 acres. But all things considered, people were allowed to return pretty quickly to assess the damage and begin preparing for the height of Ruidoso's tourist season. Even the mayor told me he was happy to see businesses returning so quickly as tourism is such an essential part of the town's economy.

And so residents and business owners were preparing to return to at least some level of normalcy, but then just this last weekend, the town got hit hard by rain that caused flooding and prompted evacuation notices and water rescues. A Lincoln County official told me that first responders rescued 21 people on Saturday and 143 people on Sunday. And now village officials are asking tourists and second homeowners to stay away for the time being. But in the same vein, many businesses are open, and residents are just trying to get back to some level of normalcy, even as they contend with the storms and the flash flooding.

SHAPIRO: But if another round of storms comes through and there's more flash flooding, is the town doing things to get ready and not face the same situation it did over the weekend?

COKER: Well, yes. So we're in the middle of New Mexico's monsoon season, and everyone here is preparing for that. And this is going to be a threat all summer, so town officials are just trying to be ready with the right resources in the right places. The emergency operation center in Ruidoso has a meteorologist keeping a close eye on storm cells in the area, and there are swift-water rescue teams staged in areas of concern. And there's even National Guard troops still in the town. So on top of all of this, you know, some wildfire crews are helping fill and distribute sandbags to help mitigate flood damage to property in the area. The big wildfires themselves are all but contained at this point, so first responders have really switched to preparing for more of this type of flooding.

SHAPIRO: And then there's also the recovery question. What does the town need to bounce back from the flood on top of the fires?

COKER: I mean, well, when talking with village officials, they're just asking for more time and for folks to stay out of the area until they're able to get current flooding under control. But even so, village residents and businesses are anxious to get back to a state where they can welcome in tourists. Like I said, it's such a big part of their economy. Whether that's going to be possible with incoming storms remains to be seen. I mean, because of flooding, they haven't even been able to get county assessors out to evaluate the extent of the wildfire damage that burned through the town, so it's very much a fluid situation from where we're at now.

SHAPIRO: Johnny Coker of members station KRWG in New Mexico. Thank you.

COKER: Thank you guys for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Johnny Coker