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A New Mexico city faces drinking water crisis following torrential rains and mudslides

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Federal Aid is now flowing into a northern New Mexico city that's been facing a drinking water crisis for almost two weeks. The water treatment plant in Las Vegas, N.M., has been overwhelmed by mudslides from when torrential rain hit a wildfire burn scar in the nearby mountains. NPR's Kirk Siegler has this update.

(SOUNDBITE OF FORKLIFT HORN BEEPING)

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KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: A typical scene now in Las Vegas, N.M., where lines of cars snake around blocks outside free distribution sites. People queue up for everything from sandbags to sanitary wipes, bottled water, to even paper plates and plastic cutlery.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You're all set, man. Have a good day.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you.

SIEGLER: Watching this forklift unload pallet after pallet of water underneath the sun here in the high-school parking lot - it's like this two-year-old-plus disaster just keeps unfolding, and there's not much of an end in sight.

MEGAN NAPIER: We're not having to turn people away today, and that's a pretty good feeling.

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SIEGLER: Lt. Col. Megan Napier with the New Mexico National Guard says donations are now coming in from around the state. Hundreds of semitruck loads of bottled and potable water have arrived in the last week, too, somewhat abating the water crisis here.

NAPIER: You know, everybody rallies around each other down here in New Mexico to get through these hard times.

SIEGLER: But resources are still tight, and it feels like New Mexico is in the midst of a climate whiplash right now. There are multiple disaster declarations for floods and wildfires statewide. Tony Robinson is FEMA's administrator for the region.

TONY ROBINSON: Not only in New Mexico, but across the country, we're seeing disasters are happening more frequently. They are having much greater impacts on individuals.

SIEGLER: In the coming days, Robinson says a new temporary filtration system should be up and running in Las Vegas to supplement its water treatment plant. That has been operating way slower than usual because the Gallinas River that feeds it was flooded with toxic debris after the mudslides.

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ROBINSON: In addition, we are bringing in bottled water for the foreseeable future to be able to take some of that - give some relief to that water system to be able to get some of that fresh water out as they do that through distribution points throughout the city.

SIEGLER: After days of stress, there's been a little bit of good news. The Fourth of July fireworks are back on for tomorrow. Nonessential businesses, except for laundromats and car washes, are allowed to reopen - most restaurants, too, so long as they serve food on paper plates.

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SIEGLER: Locals are still coming to grips with the fact that recovery in this community that's still reeling from New Mexico's largest wildfire ever in 2022 is going to take even longer now. Kristina Korte had time to reflect on the moment as she waited in an hourlong line for sandbags.

KRISTINA KORTE: I almost feel like our community is in a permanent trauma state because it's not just the fires. It is the floods thereafter. And even before then, it was, you know, dealing with COVID and shutting down.

SIEGLER: Korte is an elementary school teacher. Her in-laws' home got damaged by the recent flooding. But she says flooding and wildfires are a fact of life in New Mexico. But with climate change, all bets feel like they're off.

KORTE: I don't think we're prepared, but I do think preparation takes a lot of time. The only thing is, these events are coming faster than we can prepare for them.

SIEGLER: And this is true across New Mexico right now - from Las Vegas to Farmington to the mountain village of Ruidoso in Southern New Mexico. Deadly fires there destroyed some 1,400 structures last month. And this past weekend, as the early monsoon storms and flash floods continued relentlessly, there were more than 160 water rescues.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Las Vegas, N.M.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAT SLATER SONG, "4 LEAF CLOVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.