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Daily Newspaper and Travel Guide
for Pecos Country of West Texas

Monday, April 5, 2004

Floods linked to I-20 bridge collapse fatal wreck

Staff Writer

Five people were killed this morning in a multi-vehicle wreck on U.S. 285 south of Pecos, after vehicles were detoured onto the road due to the collapse of the Salt Draw bridge on Interstate 20 Sunday evening.

Rains that began in the Pecos area on Friday afternoon continued through Saturday, resulting in tornado warnings for Pecos and Verhalen Saturday evening. Waters from the heavy rains coming out of the Davis Mountains would then break a dam on the west side of Toyah early Sunday morning, sending water flooding into the community, before collapsing the eastbound lanes of I-20 at Salt Draw about 7:20 p.m. Sunday.

Flooding worries along State Highway 17 also led that road to be closed overnight, forcing I-20 traffic to take a 95-mile detour through Fort Stockton, which resulted in a four car, five fatality accident this morning at 4:30 a.m. on U.S. 285, midway between Pecos and Fort Stockton.

Full details on the accident were not available, but in addition to the five dead, three others were transported to Reeves County Hospital, after three semi-trucks and one pick-up collided on the two-lane highway, according to DPS Trooper Crum, who was working the accident.

Complicating the situation was the fact that one of the overturned semis was carrying an estimated 100 gallons of “Round-up,” an herbicide. The spillage of the chemicals resulted in the accident site being highly restricted until the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality representatives could make it out there. Another truck-tractor carrying lettuce was also involved in the accident.

The wreck , located about 17 miles south of Pecos, blocked both lanes of traffic. However, as of this morning Highway 17 was reopened between Pecos and Balmorhea was open, allowing traffic to be rerouted off of I-20 and onto 1-10, cutting the detour to just 30 miles.

The system that dropped over 2.68 inches over the area since Friday, according to KIUN radio, led to high rising waters in the area’s drainage creeks. It was this fast moving run-off that would end up causing a large section of the interstate to collapse, rerouting traffic onto the smaller state highways in the area, and stopping train traffic on the Union Pacific Railroad, due to the wood and concrete bridge that also crossed the draw.

The original cause of the problem, the collapsed bridge, fell into the fast moving waters of the draw around 7:20 p.m. during which no one was injured. DPS and TX-DOT crews responded to the sagging structure around 6:30 p.m.

The draw, which normally doesn’t have water flowing in it, was carrying a water load well above flood stage at 11 a.m. that morning. A nearby flood gage next to the service road west of the draw was reading a water level of 5 feet, and that was at a higher elevation than the draw itself.

The eastbound lanes of Interstate 20 over Salt Draw, 15 miles west of Pecos, began to collapse about 6:30 p.m., and the center section of the bridge fell into the churning waters 50 minutes later. Texas Department of Public Safety Sgt. Richard Jacobs said he was informed of the problem by Reeves County Sheriff’s Department personnel, and the Interstate was closed off to traffic before the section fully collapsed.

Department of Transportation Communications Manager Mike Cox said early this afteroon that DOT engineers had been out to look at the scene and based off of the condition of the bridge, the westbound lanes would remain closed as well.

“There were some visible cracks in the westbound side,” Cox said. “Carolynn Dill, the Odessa area maintenance engineer, and Mike McAnally, Director of operations for the Odessa district, have both been out to look at the bridge and agreed that it should remain closed.”

“No one with TX-DOT can remember us losing a bridge on a Texas highway before,” Cox . He said the only thing similar the agency has dealt with recently is the 2001 collapse of the bridge linking Port Isabel to South Padre Island. Eight people died when a barge struck that bridge, causing it to collapse.

Cox said the Salt Draw bridge “was built in 1968 and expanded at some point in the ‘80s. TxDOT is going to do everything we can to get it opened as fast as possible,” he added. A nearby Union Pacific Railroad bridge over the water also was shut down, and trains were being held on both sides of the crossing. The railroad bridge is a part wooden structure, with a concrete section across the main channel of the draw.

The highway collapse came several hours after the severest storms had left the Toyah area. Rains began early Saturday morning, and tornado warnings had been posted for Reeves County that evening, while severe thunderstorm warnings for the county continued until early Sunday afternoon.

“The water started going down this afternoon, then it picked up again,” Jacobs said. He added that eastbound Interstate traffic was being detoured away from Interstate 20 and onto I-10 in western Reeves County, 27 miles from the site of the collapse, while westbound traffic was being stopped in Pecos.

The overpass is located just south of where Salt Draw and San Martine draw, both normally dry, meet. It is five miles east of Toyah, and there are no other direct alternate routes through the area.

Jacobs said no vehicles ended up in the water as a result of the I-20 collapse, but one vehicle ended up in San Martine Draw earlier in the day.

“We’ve got a Jeep out there somewhere, but we don’t know where,” Jacobs said. “It got washed out on a bridge in Toyah.”

Jacobs said the driver of the Jeep was its lone occupant, and he was able to get out of the Jeep before it was washed off the FM 2903 bridge on the south side of Toyah.

Traffic that backed up at the scene of the collapse was turned back to the junction of I-10 and I-20, in order to continue east. Westbound vehicles were able to turn around on the I-20 service roads Sunday evening and return to Pecos.

According to a TX-DOT spokesperson at the Pecos office, eastbound traffic is still being rerouted at the junction, and westbound traffic is being rerouted onto Hwy 17 to I-10 as of 11:30 this morning.

Rain is forecasted to continue today, the National Weather Service is giving a 100 percent chance of precipitation for the Pecos area today, with declining chances over the next three days.

Storms cause dam break, flood Toyah homes

Staff Writer

Toyah residents remain out of their homes today, after heavy rains on Saturday caused an earthen dam to break and sent a 3-foot high wall of water through the city early Sunday morning. The system, which deposited 2.68 inches of precipitation to the area since Friday, caused even heavier rains in other sections of Reeves County. Rains in the western part of the county filled the natural drainage systems to capacity, until the earthen dike running along the western edge of the town gave way releasing the contents of San Martine Draw into the municipal streets, causing extensive flooding and requiring the evacuation of 20 families in the affected area.

Mayor Pro Tem Diana Tollett found herself stranded with about 20 residents who wouldn't leave when a wall of water 3 feet high rushed through the town.

"We had like eight inches of rain fall all at once," she said Sunday night. Tollett said about 40 people evacuated to Pecos, where the spend the night at an emergency shelter set up at the Reeves County Civic Center.

Lupe Davis, with the Pecos Chamber of Commerce, which manages the Civic Center, said several residents remained at the shelter early this afternoon. Those in Pecos also now face a long detour to return home, following the Sunday evening collapse of the Salt Draw bridge on Interstate 20 between Pecos and Toyah.

The National Weather Service listed multiple advisories for the region as reports came in from law enforcement and train weather spotters, in addition to public sources.

Tornadoes were reported and confirmed through the majority of Saturday evening. Seminole was the first with a report coming in at 7:05 p.m., with Reeves County close behind with its first reported tornado reported at 7:15 p.m. two miles northwest of Balmorhea moving east at 10 mph toward Pecos.

Possibly the same tornado was spotted again at 7:51 p.m. by law enforcement personnel five miles south west of Pecos moving at 10 mph.

Then at 8:34 p.m., three-quarter inch hail was reported within the city limits of Pecos. Flash flooding makes up the majority of the following reports, save for the activity reported in Ft. Stockton, which called in four and a quarter inch hail in addition to thunderstorm wind gusts up to 80 mph.

The system deposited heavy amounts of rainfall in the Davis Mountain region, before moving into the Trans-Pecos region, which accounts for the overloaded drainage systems that led to the flooding of Toyah.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

Floods may help farmers on Pecos River

Staff Writer

Floodwaters that have swept across West Texas and Southeastern New Mexico over the weekend were bad news for many people, but good news for farmers along the Pecos River in Texas, who may now get their first water releases from Red Bluff Lake since the summer of 2001.

Waters flowing down the Pecos River from Eddy County, N.M. raised the water level of Red Bluff Lake by almost 50 percent over the weekend, to a level that should allow water releases to farmers downstream beginning sometime later this month.

“The lake came up seven feet so far,” said Robin Prewit, secretary for the Red Bluff Water Power Control District. “We were at 57,000 acre/feet and now we’re up to 83,000 acre/feet this morning.

Red Bluff was built to handle up to 240,000 acre/feet of water, but dropped as low as 40,000 acre/feet due to drought conditions in Texas and New Mexico by the spring of 2002. As a result, the Pecos River also went dry in the Pecos area the past two summers, and while water levels were up from their 2002 lows, they were not high enough to permit water releases until this weekend.

The water came both from flooding in the Carlsbad, N.M. area and from further upstream, where as much as 12 inches of rain was reported in the Roswell, N.M. area. “I talked to Tom Davis (Carlsbad Irrigation District manager), and he said Avalon was completely full,” Prewit said. Avalon Dam is located north of Carlsbad, and rains north of there filled up the reservoir, forcing the water release which increased the flooding problems within the city on Saturday.

“Tom said at noon today they may have to release some more water downstream from Avalon, so we may pick up a little more,” Prewit said.

In Carlsbad, as much as 2 feet of water rushed down some streets, and about a dozen residents isolated by flooded roads were evacuated early Sunday, said Liz Baggs, a spokeswoman for Carlsbad's Emergency Management Office. Most residents were back home by nightfall.

But with more rain in the forecast, officials were telling residents in low-lying areas to be ready to leave. Carlsbad schools were also on a two-hour delay Monday.

"It's flooding. It's hailing. You name it and we're getting it," said Carlsbad resident Kathy Kelly. "It's been three days now."

Prewit said the Red Bluff Board will hold its next meeting on April 13. “We’re going to have the allotment on the agenda, so we might be able to sell a little water this year,” she said.

Tom Davis, manager of the Carlsbad Irrigation District, told the Carlsbad Current-Argus he authorized the release of water through the district’s Avalon Dam north of the city to accommodate the water coming down from Rocky Arroyo. However, the water was coming down faster than the released water could get out from Avalon’s emergency spillway.

“Rocky ran so fast that Avalon couldn’t handle it,” Davis said. “In addition, we had a lot of natural overland flow that came into the river from C-Hill. There was a heck of a lot of water coming through town. Added to the mix was Dark Canyon water that was also coming down.”

Snow mixed with hail and rain to create havoc across much of New Mexico over the weekend. Gov. Bill Richardson late Sunday ordered state agencies to be prepared to assist areas hardest hit.

The storms forced the closing of several roads in the Carlsbad and Hobbs areas, including state and U.S. highways.

Early voting in runoff races begins today

Early voting opened this morning for the April 13 runoff election, and 40 individuals have already cast their votes in the Precinct 1 or 3 commissioners races.

Early voting started at 8 a.m. today at the Reeves County Courthouse and will continue until Thursday. No voting will be held on Friday, due to the Good Friday holiday Voters are deciding on the outcome of the Reeves County Commissioners races in Precincts 1 and 3. Candidates for commissioner precinct 1 are Roy Alvarado and Robert Natividad. Precinct 3 candidates who are in the runoff election are: Bailey Wheeless and Saul Herrera.


High Sunday 53. Low this morning 51. Weekend rainfall downtown at KIUN Radio 2.68 inches. Forecast for tonight: Cloudy. Rain and thunderstorms likely then a slight chance of showers and thunderstorms after midnight. Lows in the mid 40s. Southeast winds near 10 mph in the evening becoming light and variable. Chance of rain 60 percent. Tuesday: Partly cloudy with a 20 percent chance of thunderstorms. Highs near 80. West winds near 10 mph. Tuesday night: Partly cloudy with isolated thunderstorms. Lows near 50. West winds near 10 mph in the evening becoming light and variable. Wednesday: Partly cloudy. Highs near 80. Northwest winds 10 to 15 mph. Wednesday night: Partly cloudy with isolated thunderstorms. Lows near 50. Thursday: Partly cloudy with isolated thunderstorms. Highs near 80. Thursday night: Partly cloudy with a 20 percent chance of thunderstorms. Lows near 50.

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Pecos Enterprise
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