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Parts of NM brace for more rain, clean up begins

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SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN | September 15, 2013 10:27 PM EST | AP

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Another round of rainfall moved across New Mexico on Sunday, renewing the threat of heavy runoff from already saturated soils and flooding in low areas as residents faced a major cleanup effort from damage left in the wake of days of relentless rain.

The National Weather Service issued a flash flood watch for much of central and northern New Mexico. In the northeastern corner of the state, where the chance for heavy rain was greatest, residents along the Gallinas River were warned that the waterway could swell again.

"As long as you get the right thunderstorm right over your area, I wouldn't be surprised if more records are broken as far as one-day rainfall totals because we still have that abundant moisture in the area," said Jason Frazier, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque.

For a state that has been in the grasp of an unprecedented drought, numerous records have fallen in the past week as floodwaters have broken through dams, inundating neighborhoods and leaving behind muddy swaths of debris.

That was the case in Crownpoint, where floodwaters rushed through earlier in the week and left behind soggy carpet and other damage at Navajo Technical University. The nursing department suffered the most damage, and portable buildings have been requested so that classes can resume soon.

The university will be closed Monday as staff returns to finish assessing the damage, university President Elmer Guy said.

"This came all too sudden," he said. "We've had those floods before that will come through our campus, but this time it was wider and there was more water and it rose up. It was strong."

Crews have been working since Friday to lessen pressure on a dam near the Crownpoint community. Guy said the water level has dropped about 12 feet and volunteers have been filling and stacking sandbags in key areas.

Some areas of New Mexico received close to 10 inches of rain since the deluge started Tuesday. Parts of Albuquerque have seen more than 4 inches, marking the wettest September on record for the city.

"A lot of locations have had more moisture for the month of September than they've had all this year or maybe even all of last year as well," Frazier said.

The rain is helping New Mexico out of the drought, but the cost has been high. At least one person has been killed, and state officials estimate the overflowing of rivers and the runoff has caused millions of dollars in damage.

The massive flooding prompted Gov. Susana Martinez to issue a state of emergency Friday, opening up recovery funding for roads. She toured some of the water-logged areas Saturday and told the Albuquerque Journal that she expects to make additional emergency declarations.

"We will be able to release as much money as is necessary to rebuild infrastructure," Martinez told residents during a stop in Sierra County.

It was along a state road in Ash Canyon in the southern New Mexico county that authorities found the body of a man in his partially submerged rental car. State Police Sgt. Emmanuel Gutierrez said investigators believe Steven Elsley, 53, of Phoenix, died after his car was washed into a ravine and carried nearly a mile from the road.

Officials said heavy rain caused the Rio Grande and nearby creeks to overflow in Sierra County, forcing an unknown number of residents to evacuate. The flooding also ruptured an aging earthen dam in southern New Mexico and an earthen canal in Las Vegas.

It was raining again in Las Vegas on Sunday, and authorities were warning residents that the Gallinas River was expected to rise, reaching levels similar to those that resulted in flooding just days earlier.

Las Vegas Police Chief Christian Montano told the Optic there were reports of some homes flooding Sunday and sandbags were being distributed.

"We're closing down the river walk as much as possible for safety reasons," he said.

Heavy rains raised the Gila River by 15 feet in the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument area, prompting the closure of the monument and nearby campgrounds. The National Weather Service said more would likely result in flooding along the river into Monday.

The Catron County Sheriff's Office reported Sunday that the rain caused flooding in Glenwood, Alma and the surrounding areas. An unknown number of residents were evacuated from the Mineral Creek and White Water Creek areas, while some residents were stuck in their homes.