An acequia moves in Mora County toward Morphy Lake in June 2022, which is near where flooding is happening now. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)
With bridges threatening to collapse from flooding, destroyed roads trapping people in or away from their homes and poor cell service, Mora County still has a long way to go in recovering from the state’s largest wildfire.
After the immediate threat from the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire ceased, County Commissioner Veronica Serna thought Mora would finally get back on its feet. But the flooding started in July and hasn’t stopped since. And the community hasn’t had a break, she said.
“This has been probably the most devastating experience Mora people have ever had, at least for the last 100 and some years,” Serna said.
An array of areas all over the county are vulnerable to flooding, Serna said, all of it coming off of burn scars. Floods have continuously damaged the roads, and Serna said the county has recently had a window of opportunity to work since the rain let up in the last week.
But the county is one of the poorest in New Mexico, even in the U.S., she said, and alone, the region doesn’t have what it would take to fix everything.
“We’re trying to get as much done in spite of our capacity limitations. Financial, human and equipment resources are very limited for us,” Serna said. “We rely heavily on the state.”
She said New Mexico officials have been sending in reinforcements from the Department of Transportation and the National Guard to help, ensuring roads can withstand this flooding, as well as future monsoon seasons. It’s a matter of giving people access to and from their homes, she said.
Other state personnel have been coming, too, Serna noted, like emergency managers to deal with the disaster, public information officers to aid in communication and Department of Homeland Security staff to help with FEMA applications.
Elections just months away
Against the backdrop of disaster recovery efforts, an election is just months away for Serna, who’s up against Republican Joseph Griego for the seat. She said she hasn’t really been able to campaign amid all the work.
“I haven’t really even had the opportunity to think much about campaigning because we have to get these issues addressed — that’s more important,” Serna said. “The people are more important than anything else.”
The North Central New Mexico Economic Development District has also been assisting. Christopher Madrid is a community development director with the nonprofit that serves eight northern N.M. counties. He said he spends two days a week in Mora to alleviate the stress on the interim county manager and is trying to help with everyday operations.
But the assistance won’t last forever, Serna said.
“It has been amazing, the support we’ve gotten, but they are temporary,” Serna said.
Madrid said the area was already not well-resourced or staffed, like others in the state, before the disasters. Applications for private and public federal help are available, but Madrid said many community members are so busy, they don’t even have time to pursue those resources. And, he said, a lot of that aid won’t make people whole again, either.
“I don’t know that there’s ever enough programs to address all of the impacts of this type of disaster,” he said.
Residents are trying to cope with water damage to their homes, including lack of water for daily use, plumbing issues, the removal of septic tanks and leach lines, and sludge-contaminated wells, Serna said.
Those are not conditions that you can expect them to live in. They need drinking water. They need water to flush their toilets.
– Veronica Serna, county commissioner
And cell phone service is still spotty because communication towers were burned during the fire, Serna added. It’s difficult to reach places that are the most at-risk and need help.
Officials and staff in Mora’s public service sector are hard to retain. Since Serna started four years ago, she said there have been three county managers. Many leave for better-paying jobs elsewhere, she said.
People working for the Mora County government get paid much less than everywhere else in New Mexico, Serna said. The state needs to allocate money so the people in the county are appropriately paid, she added.
Workers that have stuck around are doing so out of loyalty to the community, Serna said. “They have so many skills and talents, and they could easily get a higher paying job somewhere else,” she said.
Low pay is prevalent in other rural areas, too, Madrid said, because they don’t have the tax base that larger cities do. He said this high turnover rate in Mora also means a loss of institutional knowledge.
“Working rural government anywhere, it’s really challenging for these small communities to find good quality people, and when they do, these good quality people have other options,” Madrid said.
There are also issues around who’s available to work, Madrid said. He said Mora has a much older demographic than other areas of the state because people tend to leave after high school and don’t come back until retirement age.
So after the natural disasters required more hands on deck, people came out of retirement to work, Madrid said. Serna added that this can mean losing retirement benefits for those coming back to work a government job, unless they came from a private sector.
“I’ve seen folks who are well-retired, who have a good quality of life,” Madrid said. “They properly planned for their retirement, and they’re at a place where they can travel and enjoy their retirement and decided to take on a contract to lend a hand, not because they need the funding, more so that they can give back to their community.”
Age of people living in Mora
In 2021, about 30% of people living in Mora were over 65-years-old, according to the U.S. Census.
Others who can’t afford to give up their retirement benefits are volunteering instead, Serna said.
“I don’t even want to start mentioning who they are because there’s too many to give credit to, and I’d hate to leave someone out because they’ve been very gracious with their time and their skills,” she said.
Mora County is waiting to hear back about a federal grant that would fund an additional full-time employee, Madrid said, and money would also be allocated to his team so they could hire a disaster recovery specialist. San Miguel would also get a county specialist. He said he’s hopeful it’ll come through.
“That’s going to relieve a good deal of pressure, and I can tell the counties are very appreciative of the prospect of this resource coming in,” Madrid said.
Serna said what the people of Mora are going through is “beyond comprehension for most of us.” To make the county whole again, she said they’ll need assistance in the long-term.
“We’re going to continue begging for more resources to get through this,” she said, “and help the people get back to being whole again and having their homes back in order so that they can live in a humane environment again.”
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