Local Residents Caught Between State And Contractor

Los Alamos resident Jane Johnson’s back door shows the level that water and mud reached in her house last summer during flooding. Courtesy photo

Los Alamos Daily Post

Aug. 7, 2019, Los Alamos resident Jane Johnson arrived to her home in Verde Ridge to discover it was submerged in water.

Her daughter, Jill Cook, said there was 15 inches of standing water and her mother couldn’t even open the door.

This wasn’t the first time Johnson’s house had flooded. The first flood occurred July 26. Cook said the damage was minimal and the Los Alamos Fire Department’s response in the matter was “awesome.”

The flooding stems from the road construction work the New Mexico Department of Transportation (NMDOT) is conducting on N.M. 502, she said.

The project includes a roundabout being constructed at the intersection of Central Avenue and N.M. 502; additionally, Canyon Road will be realigned and other features in the project are adding more pedestrian and bicycle access as well as a storm drainage system and extensive utility upgrades.

The total project cost is $10.8 million and is expected to be completed in December. Work started March 2019.

Cook said when the original curb and gutter were removed, this caused four residents’ homes in Verde Ridge, which is located near the Knights of Columbus Hall, to flood. Cook said her mother’s home was the worst hit.

In the span of nine months, Cook said her mother’s house had to be gutted. New walls, flooring and appliances needed to be installed. Cook said she has spent $55,000 for the remodel and that cost doesn’t even include all the personal effects and memories her mother lost in the flooding.

Also, in the span of nine months there has been no responsibility taken from either NMDOT or its contractor for the N.M. 502 road project, Star Paving.

“I’ve heard from no one,” Cook told the Los Alamos Daily Post Monday.

During the March 5 Los Alamos County Board of Transportation meeting, the NMDOT officials did address the flooding issue. NMDOT Assistant District 5 Engineer for construction Sally Reeves Reeves said regarding the flooding issues from the Knights of Columbus driveway, Star Paving Company added an earth berm to direct water to an existing drainage system. She added in the final condition, the plans for the bottom of the Knights of Columbus driveway require an asphalt curb that will direct storm water into that same existing drainage system.

Cook shared with the Daily Post her correspondence between Star Paving and NMDOT, which date back to August 2019. In that time, Cook requests her claim for damages be approved.

Star Paving’s responses ranged from they were simply following directions and were not accepting any claims to the flooding was “an act of God – unusual and sudden and unexpected forces of nature” and therefore were not a fault.

In NMDOT’s correspondence, several officials offer a different opinion.

Rose Quintana of the state’s Property and Casualty Bureau flatly denied Cook’s claim, writing on Sept. 12, 2019 that “we have found no waiver of immunity from liability pursuant to the State of New Mexico’s Tort Claim Act. ‘Nothing in this section shall be construed as granting waiver of immunity of any damages arising out of operation or maintenance of works used for diversion or storage of water.’”

Reeves, in her correspondence in February said that “Star Paving was responsible for any damage caused during construction of the project.”

Since then, Cook said she hasn’t heard from anyone. She added she recently mailed several hard copies of letters and her hope was to get a response some time this week.

“I don’t care whose fault it is,” Cook told the Los Alamos Daily Post. “I want someone to take responsibility and cover the costs.”

She said if the claim is not approved by either the state or Star Paving, legal action will be taken. Cook said her lawyer as well as attorneys representing the three other residents are working together. Ideally, Cook said they would all like this to be settled outside of court.

The bottom line, Cook said is that she is out a lot of money. Plus, her mother, who is 74 years old, has been traumatized by this whole experience.

“It would be nice,” Cook said, “If someone stood up and showed some leadership instead of finger pointing.”

Los Alamos resident Jane Johnson’s kitchen was completely submerged in water as a result of flooding that occurred Aug. 7, 2019. Courtesy photo