The Chile Capital’s Long Road Back From Little Katrina

At first, Melva Aguirre didn’t take the report of floodwaters roaring down on her arid hometown seriously. “When they told us water was coming, we were laughing,” Aguirre said, recalling the afternoon of August 15, 2006, in the small southern New Mexico town of Hatch. “And then it came in…,” the restaurateur sighed, adding that the resultant damage forced her Pepper Pot Restaurant to undergo five weeks’ worth of repairs.

A homey place where Aguirre greets customers by name, the Pepper Pot is a good spot to hear about or glimpse a traumatic chapter in Hatch’s history. In addition to an American flag and the old vinyl records of Elvis Presley and other musical luminaries that line the walls, the eatery’s décor features photos of the inundated Los Caballos Apartments and other scenes from flooding whose after effects ripple through the life of a rural community a decade later.

August 15 was the first of three terrible Tuesdays that struck Hatch back in August 2006. On that fateful day, rainwater overflowed the Placitas Arroyo, submerging streets and properties in several feet of water. Two subsequent but smaller flooding events followed on August 22 and 29.

Internationally known for its prized chile pepper crop, Hatch was slammed only days prior to the annual Hatch Chile Festival, an event that attracts thousands from throughout the region.

James L. “Slim” Whitlock, proprietor of Jim’s Supermarket, was more fortunate than many others: only about four inches of water seeped into his store, Whitlock calculated. Still, “it was a scary night,” the grocer told Frontera NorteSur.

Whitlock credits the rapid response of outside agencies like the New Mexico State Police and New Mexico National Guard for getting Hatch through a rough evening. “They were there doing their part. This community owns a debt to people we don’t even know. They set aside their lives to help us,” Whitlock said.

Of Hatch’s estimated 1600 residents at the time, 500 were temporarily or permanently displaced and more than 400 homes and businesses suffered some degree of damage.  The public schools took a hit. Serving the Village of Hatch and surrounding rural communities, the Hatch Valley School District saw student enrollment drop from 1,556 pupils during the 2005-06 school year to 1,408 in the 2006-2007 academic year, according to New Mexico Public Education Department numbers.

Student enrollment was up slightly to 1,440 for the 2007-08 school year but dropped again in succeeding calendar years, slipping to 1,308 by the 2013-14 school year, the Hatch Valley Public Schools Facilities Master Plan 2014-2019 reported, as the Great Recession, drought and changes in the chile industry interceded- almost as if the flood was a bad omen.

Approximately 95 percent of Hatch’s residents did not carry flood insurance when Little Katrina hit, an Frontera NorteSur follow-up story reported a year later.

In 2016 residents are still financially vulnerable. As of early August 2016, only 61 local policies, valued at $8,827,900 and costing annual premiums of $87,718 in total, were registered with the National Flood Insurance Program, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Overall, FEMA reports that $3,423,310 in flood insurance claims have been paid out by private insurers in Hatch since 1978.

Almost all of the current flood insurance coverage is found in Hatch’s high-risk zone, as defined by the FEMA flood map currently in effect. Many of Hatch’s residents are low-income farmworkers or renters, and a policy with an annual starting price of about $700.00 can take a hefty bite out of a tight family budget.

Based on U.S. Census figures, the Hatch Valley Public School’s most recent master plan reported that 30 percent of the local population lived below the poverty line at some point in recent years.

If another flood disaster strikes, many locals would find themselves in a crunch even with FEMA assistance. Earl Armstrong, public affairs officer for FEMA’s Region 6, stressed that in the 2016 fiscal year his agency is limited to paying out a maximum of $33,000 in individual assistance, as set by Congress. FEMA’s role, Armstrong explained, is to supplement payments from private insurers. “It might get them into a house while they’re making repairs,” he said.

The 2006 Hatch flooding was part of a series of floods that struck the greater Paso del Norte region from Hatch in the north to the Juarez Valley in the south during July and August of 2006.  Overall, thousands were displaced and property damage assessed in the hundreds of millions on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. The extreme weather events were collectively dubbed Little Katrina by Frontera NorteSur at the time.

Although the particular flood experience touched a small of section the globe, its lessons and experiences have a national and international ring in a time of climate change, further illustrating how political and legal structures, community involvement and economic factors all influence the pace of recovery.

Not waiting for officialdom, Hatch’s residents quickly got to work repairing the damage. Aguirre doesn’t forget the restaurant regulars who rolled up their sleeves to plaster and patch so the morning wake-up could get brewing and the vittles simmering again in the kitchen. “They needed a coffee shop,” she chuckled, “to have breakfast in the morning.” If it hadn’t been for the early bird farmers, the Pepper Pot would not have been able to reopen, Aguirre said.

“It was a miracle nobody got killed,” said Rose Garcia, executive director of Tierra Del Sol, Inc., a non-profit housing development corporation active in New Mexico and Texas. Garcia was involved in a regional effort at reconstructing Hatch.

“They’re a very resilient community.  I was amazed how they didn’t depend on government or anybody from outside,” Garcia told Frontera NorteSur. “I’m really proud. They improvised a lot with really limited resources…within three years it was totally transformed, the area,” Garcia added.

The longtime housing advocate credited a hastily assembled community-based organization, the Hatch Area Recovery Team (HART) and its “spark plug,” Marcia Nordyke, for accelerating the flood relief by holding regular meetings and developing a data base.

Now retired and the widow of former Hatch Mayor Judd Nordyke, Marcia Nordyke generally leads a private life these days but stays active in the community as a board member of the Hatch Public Library. In a phone interview, Nordyke said she and her late husband were having lunch in the Pepper Pot when Little Katrina came calling.

“It was horrific. It was fast and furious, and it was something I hope to never see again,” Nordyke said. Rushing outside, the couple was soon confronted with knee-deep water and traffic entanglements. Nordyke said her husband, whom she called a “hands-on mayor,” went over to Los Caballos Apartments, the worst-hit property, where farmers employed tractors to get residents off the premises.

For Nordyke, the response of both government and civil society stands out. She praised FEMA, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, a Baptist group and others for rising to the occasion. Animal control personnel responded and removed stranded critters from yards.

“It was absolutely amazing-our people,” the 46-year Hatch resident said.

Hatch’s fame as the Chile Capital of the World paid off, with Texas’ Central Market kicking in donations, Nordyke added. The grocery chain regularly promotes Hatch Valley-grown chile and even roasts peppers at its Lone Star state locations.

After a required Presidential Disaster Declaration was issued for Hatch and other flooded New Mexico communities on August 30, 2006, FEMA stepped up assistance.

Arriving in Hatch as a FEMA housing specialist, Isabella Solis was taken aback by the destruction. “I thought the damages were horrendous. It was really amazing,” Solis said during a phone interview. A year earlier, Solis had worked on Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana.

“I don’t think there’s any comparison to the damages, but as far as the little town of Hatch, it was really devastating,” she judged.

Solis said FEMA registered victims, even extending a hand to those who did not have flood insurance. Renters were compensated for the loss of personal belongings, while property owners got some financial help.  She said FEMA maintained an active project for Hatch until early 2011, after a new apartment complex for flood victims opened.

According to FEMA’s Region 6 office in Texas, the agency provided $1, 266,297.86 in individual and housing assistance to eligible residents, while the U.S. Small Business Administration and the Disaster Unemployment Assistance Program also offered their services. At the time, FEMA’s maximum grant was limited to $28,500, with individual assistance checks to Hatch residents averaging $3,000-$5,000.

Additionally, FEMA channeled $677,657.52 in public assistance for Hatch through the New Mexico state government. That money was allocated of removing debris, fixing roads, repairing water control facilities, restoring utilities and the like.

Incorporated as a non-profit, HART raised about $30,000 that was spent on individual home repairs and other necessities like beds for flood victims, Nordyke estimated. Coming like a sucker punch, the flood left psychological scars in displaced children, who “got hysterical” and required counseling when storm clouds gathered. “They were scared to death,” she remembered.

Given the legal caps on FEMA assistance, the lack of flood insurance and the displacement problem, was the flood relief adequate? For her part, Nordyke affirmed mostly yes. “Of course, there are things that money can’t replace, but those who wanted stayed and came back,” she added.

For temporary shelter, FEMA supplied 75 trailers, which took longer than expected to erect because of the difficulty in finding a large, appropriate site with utility connections. Many displaced families, including former tenants of Los Caballos Apartments, were lodged by the end of 2006 at a new FEMA trailer park a few miles south of Hatch in Rincon.

Originally, the word was that residents would be in the trailer park for 18 months while permanent housing was built. As it turned out, the last residents did not move out of the site until December 2010. Visible from Interstate 25, the old trailer park is nowadays an empty piece of land.  Mostly, the trailers were “sent back to staging areas and possibly sent to the General Services Administration for auction,” according to FEMA’s Earl Armstrong.

Tierra del Sol got five FEMA trailers donated to flood victims, assisting some of the families in becoming homeowners.  Valued at $100,000, the transactions were financed by the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority and Federal Home Loan Bank Dallas to pay for the new homes, utility connections and extensions, according to Rose Garcia. “Everybody owns their lots. They hadn’t owned anything,” she said.

“We have continued to provide housing rehab as we can access resources to address the many home owners that still need repairs,” Garcia added in an e-mail.

In 2016 change is evident in Chile Capital of the World, though memories of the flood and loose ends from its fury linger on in the small town’s historical narrative. Their lives uprooted by a rude surprise, some people never came back. Hatch’s population creeped back upward, but growth was even faster in nearby rural communities outside the town flood plain.

According to Mayor Andy Nunez, the flooding forced local government offices to relocate for a few months until repairs were made, while records were lost to mold.  Nunez, who also serves as state representative for the Hatch area, was in Nogales, Arizona, attending a border crossing dedication with Janet Napolitano and other officials when the flood slammed his town.

An out-of-state friend called Nunez while he was having lunch and asked, ‘How is the flood going?’” Startled by the news, Nunez hightailed it back to Hatch and glimpsed a view from a mountain where “all you could see is mud.”

Even to this day about fifteen, deteriorating properties sit abandoned in town, Nunez said. Getting the buildings properly taken care of has proven a major challenge due to the difficulty in tracking down owners, who often turn out to be of little means, he said.

“We’ve got our legalities. We’ve got our attorneys..,” Nunez added. “We’re going to clean it up. It’s going to cost the village some money.”

Marcia Nordyke agreed that the problem has persisted for years. She recalled her husband, who passed away in 2013, playing detective in attempting to untangle the web of genuine property owners and work out solutions, an undertaking she compared to researching genealogy.

“It was a long process to find out who owned it,” she added. “A municipality can’t just go in and tear them down.”

Although the Placitas Arroyo has been cleared of debris to keep it from overflowing, major flood control infrastructure projects are still pending.

“I felt Hatch would get over it right away,” Whitlock reflected, referring to an over-optimistic conversation he had with a reporter during the flood days. “I remember telling him by the Chile Festival we’ll be okay, and here we are. It’s 10 years later.”

“I think Hatch has stepped up and recovered and they are on their way. I don’t know if they will ever recovery mentally. It’s something that’s in the back of their minds,” Isabella Solis mused.

Although a drive around Hatch reveals economic diversification, agriculture is still the heavy hitter and the summer and fall months are busy times for harvesting onions and then the emblematic chile crop.

Constructed in 1928, the old elementary school was damaged in the flood but replaced by a new one in 2008. Once a popular hang-out, the old Dairy Queen is long gone, its building filled by a succession of businesses that in its latest incarnation is slated to be called Billy’s Chicken and Ice Cream. After a long hiatus, Hatch once again has a lone motel open, the King’s Pillow Inn. And in a sign of changing times, a small branch of Dona Ana Community College serves students.

Teako Nunn, owner of Franciscan RV and the man responsible for putting up the 15 or so big character and Americana statutes in Hatch, perhaps personifies the new Hatch. A veteran antique dealer who looks like an old-time Westerner with his graying fluff and amiable, tall stride, Nunn and his wife, Josie, seized an opportunity when they purchased a flood-damaged building downtown.

Opened in July 2008, Sparky’s BBQ and Espresso is today an undisputed Hatch landmark, its exterior flagged by an Uncle Sam statue flanked by a jalapeno and a red chile pepper, while a busy interior bustles with the flavor of barbecue and green chile cheeseburgers, the tricks of magicians and the tunes of blues and rock performers.

“We totally remodeled everything,” Nunn said proudly during an interview with Frontera NorteSur earlier this summer. In fact, business became so good that Nunn said he bought the lot across the street for extra parking.

Sparky’s is a nerve center of an emerging Hatch that’s taking advantage of its geographic location as a short-cut between the north-south Interstate 25 and the east-west corridor of Interstate 10. Travelers heading south on Interstate 25 from Denver or Albuquerque save time by avoiding the Interstate 10 junction in Las Cruces simply by turning off at Hatch and taking the road past Las Uvas Mountains to the junction of Interstate 10 in Deming.

Although Hatch lost out to Truth or Consequences in the competition over a new visitor center for the nearby New Mexico Spaceport, tourism shines a bright light down on his town, Nunn affirmed.  “It’s becoming an energetic, vibrant city,” Sparky’s owner ventured. “It’s becoming interesting, more things to do. It used to be a by-pass.”

But Nunn has decided to pull back a bit in his revitalization projects.

Up New Mexico 187, a short jaunt from the chile capital’s downtown, surrounded by pecan trees and small apartments and almost across from a Family Dollar store, sit the remnants of Los Caballos Apartments, the poster child of Little Katrina.

Mostly farmworkers and their families, the residents of Los Caballos’ 72 apartments lost hearth and home. The majority of the units were subsequently razed, but three apartment buildings with a total of 24 units still stand, cracks sculpting the edifices. On a recent day a stray washing machine was plopped in front of one of the buildings. The complex’s old office and laundry building also survives.

Easily imaginable as Hatch’s haunted house, the deserted grounds are seemingly ideal habitat for all manner of vermin. Nunn confirmed reports that he purchased Los Caballos Apartments about 18 months ago with the intention of refurbishing them.

“We were planning to fix them up and rent them out, but my wife reminded me that I’m 66 years old and we’re gonna sell,” he said. Nunn insisted that the apartments are in decent condition with no appreciable damage or mold, adding that the remaining apartments were on higher ground and absorbed less water than the other structures.

In terms of post-flood damage, he said the vandalism in which “kids knocked holes in the walls” happened years ago, as “people got it out of their system”. In preparation for remodeling, Nunn said he removed left-over appliances such as water heaters and stoves for the community’s free taking.

The businessman’s asking price for the remaining, 24-unit complex? $200,000, with owner financing to boot. He predicted that any buyer who remodels the surviving apartments and puts them on the rental market could become a millionaire after 20 years.

Is Nunn concerned about Los Caballos Apartments’ location in the flood plain?

“The whole town is on a flood plain. Sparky’s, our little café is at ground zero,” he replied.

While another chapter in the drawn out saga of Los Caballos Apartments remains to be written, a fresh monsoon season, a new green chile harvest, and an unexpected burst of violence, the August 12 murder of 33-year-old Hatch policeman Jose Chavez, set the mood in Hatch.

According to Slim Whitlock, it’s the time of year- post Little Katrina- when the town folk pay closer attention to Las Uvas Mountains, where monsoon run-off forms and drains into the Placitas Arroyo. Nowadays, when the rain gods beat their drums, “Everybody looks back at the Uvas Mountains to see if there is a storm up there,” Whitlock said.

This story was made possible in part by the Fund for Investigative Journalism

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, the border region and Mexico. He is a regular contributor to CounterPunch and the Americas Program.