Monsoon rains close U.S. Highway 491, expected to open by Monday

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

NASCHITTI, N.M., July 6, 2013

Text size: A A A

(Times photo – Donovan Quintero)

Firefighters from San Juan County and Newcomb Fire Departments stand next to an area of highway 491 early Sunday morning near the 44 mile marker north of Naschitti, N.M. According to fire officials on scene, a section of the road collapsed sometime around 10 P.M. Friday evening. Navajo police set up roadblocks on both sides of the collapsed road and were diverting traffic driving through to seek other routes. One vehicle bearing Idaho plates did not see the 12-foot crack in the road and was forced to speed up to clear it, and crashed on the other side. They were taken to an area hospital. It is not known if they were injured. Highway 371 and HIghway 191 are the easiest routes to take for tourists.

Torrential monsoon rains have “completely closed” a portion of U.S. Highway 491, after runoff from the Chuska Mountains undermined a culvert with the force of the water ultimately creating a 10-feet-by-6-feet crevice across the roadway.

New Mexico Department of Transportation Officials, Navajo Nation Police and Newcomb Fire Department District 13 have been on scene, diverting traffic to alternative routes, including through U.S. Highway 371. U.S Highway 371 runs parallel to U.S. Highway 491 about 50 miles east of the closed highway between Bloomfield and Crownpoint, N.M.

Locals call the site of the damaged road Stinky Water Wash, which is near Miles Post 44. Commuters driving through the corridor will be told to turn around to take the alternative route via U.S. 371. The road is closed off to northbound motorists in Naschitti, near the intersection of the Naschitti Cattle Auction and second turnoff to the community, and for southbound motorists, the road is closed by Mile Post 45, just south of Sheep Springs, N.M.

Area folks told the Navajo Times that Friday evening when the storm struck there was heavy rain for about two hours with thunder and lightning. One local described the monsoon shower as “pouring rain” and “a few minutes later you could hear the frogs croaking.”

According to Delane Baros, management analyst for NMDOT District 6, state road department officials are working on creating a detour near the area of the collapsed road. She said that materials are currently being shipped to the area of the road disaster.

“It’s amazing what water can do,” she said, adding that the culvert under the roadway had collapsed because of the force of the gushing water lifted up the culvert and caused the road to fail.

Baros cautioned motorists not to cross flash flooded areas on any part of any highway, adding that it’s about their safety.

“Use caution and don’t try to cross running water,” she said. “We don’t know what’s underneath and we just want to be safe.”

One family of four, from Idaho, didn’t use that caution, as evidenced by their damaged car. The family was transported to Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock, according to Newcomb Fire Department Chief Michael Joe, after attempting to cross the damaged roadway Friday evening.

In an interview with the Navajo Times, before a Shiprock District Police Officer asked the Navajo Times to step-away from what he dubbed a “criminal scene,” Joe said the family crossed the highway at a high rate of speed and obviously didn’t know the damaged road had a 10-feet-by-6-feet ditch under the running water.

Joe said the runoff caused the Idaho family’s car to hydroplane away from the gushing water into the shoulder of the highway. Luckily, he said, the family didn’t sustain any major injuries, but were taken by ambulance to Northern Navajo Medical Center.

“Got to fix the whole thing before anyone can cross it,” Joe said about the collapsed road.

Asked when the road could become passable, Baros anticipates the road to be open by Sunday afternoon, and, if not, by Monday morning.

“When Monday comes around, they’ll send out engineers to look at the structure,” Baros said.

Baros explained that the site of the collapsed road was scheduled for repair incidentally on Monday, as part of U.S Highway 491’s expansion into a four-lane highway.  Construction efforts are currently being concentrated on in this area of the road, from Sheep Springs to Naschitti, N.M.

Meanwhile, as the damaged road is detouring people through Crownpoint, locals have used backcountry roads to pass through the area.

And for those participating in the 34th Annual Narbona Pass Classic, which is scheduled for Sunday, organizer Chester Carl is recommending motorists to go through Window Rock and Fort Defiance on Indian Route 12/N.M. Highway 134 to get to Narbona Pass.

“Be safe and don’t cross running water,” Baros said. “We hope to have it open tomorrow or Monday.”