Pictures from a thousand-year flood

Small organizations like ArtSmart in Santa Fe are exceptionally vulnerable to extreme weather induced by climate change

Piles of sandbags still line the bottom of a garage door at the ArtSmart New Mexico studio and learning center on Parkway Drive near Siler Road. Tori Brown, the events coordinator for the children's arts education program, says the staff is still too afraid to get rid of them, over two months since the building flooded.

When the rains fell on July 23, a swell of water in a city water retention pond behind the building gushed through an opening between the garage door and the ground, and also through openings in a side wall. Soon the entire building was flooded with up to three inches of rainwater. Staff was wrapping up its summer program at the time.

"The kids were supposed to arrive at 8 o'clock [the next morning]," Brown tells SFR. After the art instructor arrived to survey the place, Brown got wind that there was water in the building: "I thought maybe it was just a puddle. But no, it was the whole building."

The city of Santa Fe hasn't put a dollar figure on the total damage to homes and businesses during the flood. Instead, says city spokesman Matt Ross, officials sorted 320 requests for damage assessments into broad categories of heavy, medium and light damage. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) conducted its own evaluation in the aftermath, which Ross says the agency will eventually release to the city.

The "thousand-year flood" submerged Santa Fe more severely than at any other storm in living memory, even prompting the Santa Fe Community Foundation to launch its own fund drive to pay down the costs of building repairs. (You can apply for those funds here.) But dangerously weird weather is becoming more common as climate change grips the planet.

With greenhouse gas emissions at current rates, more extreme weather is normalizing across the world, seeding a convergence of global crises as soon as 2040, according to the United Nations.

It can be difficult to see what these abstract trends look like in real time. But ArtSmart's damaged premises months after a single night of flooding provide a glimpse: A high water mark along soaked drywall, carpeting ripped out, tiles on the floor buckling together like tectonic plates, and office furniture and art supplies piled chaotically in open areas while rooms are prepped for renovation.

Even though it is a nonprofit, ArtSmart shares many of the same risks as small businesses vulnerable to climate change-induced damage, including one fixed physical location, a limited amount of capital and high insurance costs. A report from the Small Business Majority and the American Sustainable Business Council found an estimated 25 percent of small- to mid-sized businesses do not reopen following a major ecological disaster.

"We're looking at somewhere between $35,000 and $40,000 for rebuilding, and probably close to $70,000 in total damages," says Amanda Thomas, executive director of the program.

That doesn't include the organization's plans to waterproof the building's back side, which faces the retention pond. According to Thomas, a city engineer came to review the area and told her the city couldn't modify the pond to hold more water in the event of future storms because such changes would violate federal regulations.

Ross, the city spokesman, says updating the pond so that it could hold more water "would have to take into account the likely huge cost of building the stormwater infrastructure during the development process."

"Our infrastructure is designed to a 100-year standard, a standard set by city code," Ross writes in an email to SFR. "If the pond has performed in the past, and only overflowed in this instance, then it has been performing up to that standard."

Thomas expresses frustration with the city's response.

"At this point, we'll take things into our own hands to make sure we take preventative measures to ensure it doesn't happen again," she says. "It's frustrating because we've had to put so much money into this. It's thrown off our daily business and it's been a lot on our organization that provides services for the city."

During the day, ArtSmart instructors fan out to schools in Española, Abiquiú and Dixon for daytime lessons. They visit local schools in Santa Fe for after school lessons, and provide programming for youth incarcerated at the Santa Fe juvenile detention center.

The late July flooding meant that the organization's summer camp program wasn't badly affected, says Brown. ArtSmart instructors are able to use the space to prepare for their daytime classes at schools, but for the most part staff members stay home as they wait on major repairs.

The organization doesn't plan to apply for repair funds from the Santa Fe Community Foundation, but it has a GoFundMe page and is actively hustling for private donations.

"We're sending out lots of letters and meeting with donors and local businesses to help raise funds," Thomas says. While she'd like to hold a fundraiser, "we have a very small staff and running business as normal on top of dealing with all the flooding, we just haven't had time to organize it."

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