After the Storm
Columbus is still cleaning up after a monsoon micro-burst last summer.
I meet Bruce D'Salas in Columbus early one day in January, in the light yellow sunlight of a winter morning on the border.
D'Salas is deeply involved with the follow-up after the storm, known as a "micro-burst," last July 23 that damaged at least 40 houses in the northwest part of the town of 1,662 residents. He says almost all those affected are Mexican immigrants who work in "construction, chile picking, chile processing, or onion processing."
He is an aspiring church pastor who has been collecting information about them, counseling them, and praying with them from the beginning.
Most of the damage isn't obvious to the sight. The most visible wreckage he showed me, while driving me around, was a two-by-four piece of wood still lodged in a hole in a roof. "The wood came from across the street like a missile," he said.
The micro-burst was a rare phenomenon involving cold air rapidly falling down into warmer air during a rain storm, causing a strong wind and changing air pressure drastically. D'Salas says it seems to him it was a tornado because of the way it would hit one home and then skip over the next.
We stop at a house where no one answers the door. D'Salas tells me that an elderly couple is living in their very chilly storage shed after their mobile home had its windows and doors blown out, as well as suffering other serious damage.
I've driven through Columbus many times since July and never noticed the damage. I'd naively assumed that the Red Cross or some other organization had probably repaired the homes in a few weeks.
But after the Red Cross, HUD (Housing and Urban Development), the Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, Tierra del Sol, a church coalition and a few other organizations did their thing, it still seems as if the efforts to help are just getting into gear.
We stop at a trailer where a young woman with a toddler in her arms opens the door. Pricila shows me how the roof and the skirting on the trailer still need repairs. The roof is leaking in several spots "when it snows and rains," she says. "The two windows over the couch blew out, and it rained all over."
D'Salas talks about possible mold in the insulation and how the little boy Nathan has "immune deficiency" (HIV).
The Red Cross was there almost immediately and offered cleaning supplies and a little food. Pricila's husband earns $8 an hour as a beginning welder, and they have little money to do the repairs.
Not too far away, in a red brick house where two elderly sisters live, large cracks are now all over the walls. The sister who is at the house, Socorro Torres, said a washing machine outside a house over 100 feet away "flew into the alley" beside her own house the day of the storm.
"We were really afraid," she says. "We were saying, ‘My God, please help me!' as we huddled together in the street."
Our next visit is to Maria Dolores Gaitan. Hers is a pink stucco house with a nice bay window, built by her now-divorced husband. She lives there now with two school-aged children.
When D'Salas arrives, she asks him if she needs to pay taxes on a shed that blew right over a stucco wall. He says she doesn't.
"The Salvation Army said the wind picked up the roof and set it down again," he says. Cracks are visible everywhere.
The houses with cracked walls need extensive work, beyond just filling in the cracks.
A coalition of churches was set up a few weeks after the storm to help out. Father Henry Hoffman of the St. Augustine Anglican Church in Deming is spearheading the effort, along with Pastor Tony Egan of the Foursquare Church in Silver City.
Ed Kemp, a volunteer at the First United Methodist Church in Deming, is the project manager for volunteers there. About 10 volunteers helped five families affected by the storm. Kemp believes there are 37 more houses to repair. The coalition is considering replacing three homes with new mobile homes.
But he is elderly and in a wheelchair, and he needs young blood on their committee. "I'm going to go to churches, the fire chief, the police chief, because we need young men. The people who have time are retired, are older — they shouldn't be climbing up ladders and so forth."
Father Hoffman and Pastor Egan between them raised $25,000. "The Salvation Army was very generous with a $10,000 grant," says Hoffman. There's been a long delay due to the holidays.
"We have $10,000 left," he says. "And we need to raise another $50,000-$60,000. But what we need most are volunteers to do the work."
The house that belonged to Columbus Mayor Nicole Lawson's late father lost its roof and a wall during the storm and was later demolished. She had insurance to take care of it.
She says that the day after the storm the streets were entirely cleaned because of all the scavenging going on. "I had someone asking for our roof," she says.
Lawson was ready to join the coalition, D'Salas says. "But Pastor Egan asked her to drop out because of politics, so she stepped out gracefully."
Lawson adds, "We don't have the authority or the finances to help."
One might think the town could exempt itself from helping its residents due to its own morass of problems deriving from the arrest of the "Columbus Eleven" in March 2011 for gun-running to drug cartels. City Hall records were left in disarray.
"We had the almost impossible task of developing a system that's accountable," Lawson says. "Our morale is pretty low."
Arrested former mayor Eddie Espinoza returned in late November after serving only one year of his four-year sentence. "He was in City Hall just last week," says Lawson. "The community is embittered.
"But they are a phenomenal bunch of people," she adds. "Some of the poorest people I know give abundantly of themselves.
"We've reached a point where we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel," she says, with an optimism that might be a bit obligatory.
My guess is, the church coalition will do a lot of good things for the storm victims, but that efforts will peter out after a while when donations get thinner. There's so much to do and so little money to do it with. Those affected are too obscure.
But they can really use the help right now.
Contact volunteer project manager Ed Kemp in Deming at (575) 546-6408.
Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.