Los Alamos a city awash in turmoil

Flood threat comes as residents try to recover from fires

July 01, 2000|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

LOS ALAMOS, N. M. - From a distance, the bristly stand of ponderosa pine behind this formerly secret mesa looks like it's got a bad case of five o'clock shadow, cast perhaps by a rogue thundercloud.

But drive a little closer and you see the violence: row upon row of charcoal skeletons where healthy trees used to be. Roll down the window and it fills your nose: the stale stench of a sooty incinerator.

Eight weeks after the Cerro Grande wildfires roasted 47,000 acres of once-lush forest and several neighborhoods, residents here in the birthplace of the atomic bomb are struggling to rebound.

But nature may have one last trial in store for Atomic City: a flood.

Meteorologists say the annual monsoon season will come early and heavy this year. The first downpours are expected any day. While farmers in drought-stricken New Mexico are celebrating, Los Alamos will be sweating each falling drop.

Two inches of continuous rain - perhaps much less - is all it will take to unleash a soupy torrent of water, mud and debris down the scarred mountain slopes, scientists say. If that happens, the flood could wash away a critical bridge in town, and swamp homes in the valley below.

There's even concern that floodwaters could flush radioactive soil buried on lab grounds since the days of the Manhattan Project into four neighboring Indian pueblos and the Rio Grande.

For residents of Los Alamos, it would be just one more insult in a year already full of them.

A string of embarrassing security bungles at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the country's premier nuclear weapons research facility, where more than half the town's 18,000 residents work, has caused morale there to drop to "zilch," says William Baughman, a nuclear chemist who spent 35 years with the lab before retiring in October.

The Albuquerque Journal recently compared nuclear physicists to nuclear power plant nitwit Homer Simpson. And David Letterman wondered last week whether the lab's security application contained this question: "Which word better describes you: `bumbling' or `incompetent'?"

Says Evelyn Maes, a government affairs staffer at the lab: "Between the fire, the flooding and everything going on at the lab, I think people's brains are just numb."

And people are frightened.

Maes owns a house in White Rock, a two-light town nestled in the canyon below Los Alamos that's considered most susceptible to flooding. When an errant rainstorm blew through one recent evening, she tossed and turned.

"I didn't sleep all night. I don't think anyone around here did," Maes says.

After seeing what happened to friends and colleagues in last month's inferno, Maes has purchased flood insurance, left a pair of shoes by the door, and carted family snapshots and other sentimental trinkets to her daughter's house in Albuquerque, two hours south - just in case the floodwaters come.

Employing everything from satellites to straw, a squad of scientists and firefighters is scrambling to prevent that from happening.

Helicopters have been spraying the denuded areas with 750,000 pounds of quick-sprouting grass seed, which would protect the soil like a bandage if it sprouts in time.

Hundreds of firefighters and 2,000 local volunteers have spent the past few weeks fanned out in the black forest scattering hay, breaking up cooked soils and laying down "wattles," 20-foot-long straw-filled mesh tubes, to prevent erosion.

If everything holds, the $20 million patch could cut storm flows by 30 percent, says Barry Imler, head of the Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation team in Los Alamos.

But that still means 70 percent more water gushing down these slopes than most folks here have ever experienced.

"My biggest concern is what people are going to think when they start seeing those flows," says Imler. "It's one thing to talk numbers. It's another to see it on the ground."

And then there's the radiation.

Los Alamos, which physicist Emilio Segre once called "beautiful and savage country," was selected as the super-secret site of the Manhattan Project in 1942 to develop the first atomic bomb. It has been involved in building, testing or maintaining atomic weapons ever since.

Last month's Cerro Grande blaze destroyed 9,000 acres of lab property, including several sites where mildly radioactive contaminants were buried.

While state and federal tests concluded that the smoke plume harbored no man-made toxins, rumors and fear over radioactivity continue to smolder.

Early last month, 150 U.S. Forest Service firefighters broke camp citing fears of radiation exposure.

"We don't feel like we've been told everything," says Sheila Carpenter, a manager at State Farm Insurance, which dispatched a team of disaster-relief specialists here to help process fire claims.

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