Natural disasters plague the Navajo Nation this winter


Highway 89 south of Page, Ariz., is closed following the Feb. 20 collapse of the road. Officials with the Arizona Department of Transportation say no timetable has been set for repair or rerouting of the highway. Courtesy of the Arizona Department of Transportation

The Navajo Nation has gotten a double whammy this winter, with a weather-related, reservation-wide breakdown of its water pipes followed by the collapse of a long stretch of Highway 89, south of Page, Ariz.

But the twin crises have brought about a silver lining. They’ve allowed the nation to emerge as a national leader, paving the way for tribes to use a newly minted law to request a state of emergency directly from the federal government, rather than relying on their respective states to declare it for them.

The first disaster, “Operation Winter Freeze,” was an unprecedented weather-related state of emergency in late January and early February in which more than 3,000 homes lost water due to frozen and broken pipes.

The disaster followed several weeks when nighttime temperatures hovered around 20 below and daytime temperatures stayed below freezing.

With the closure of Highway 89, travelers must detour about 45 miles. Courtesy of the Arizona Department of Transportation

With the closure of Highway 89, travelers must detour about 45 miles. Courtesy of the Arizona Department of Transportation

“It’s not unusual for temperatures to drop into the negative 20s,” said Erny Zah, spokesman for Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly. “What’s unusual is that it happened for nearly three weeks consecutively. It got to the point where some of us were talking about 15 degrees being warm.”

As a result, the ground froze to a lower depth than it normally does, freezing buried water pipes along with it. That started a cascade of breaks: as soon as workers would get a section of pipe thawed, the water would rush to the next frozen section, and cause a break in it. The freeze reached all the way to the ends of the lines, freezing hundreds of meters at people’s homes. The bursts and leaks drained millions of gallons from water tanks, depleting pressure system-wide in some cases, and threatening the closure of some essential facilities, like a hospital in Fort Defiance. The disaster struck far and wide across the Navajo Nation, from Tuba City, Ariz., and southern Utah’s Navajo Mountain in the west to Window Rock and Crownpoint, N.M. in the east.

Nation to nation

The governors in both Arizona and New Mexico declared states of emergency. More than 3,500 homes reported water outages, and at last count water had been restored to two-thirds of those. The crisis soaked up $780,000 in the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority’s rate-derived contingency fund, and Shelly is seeking $2.8 million more to cover ongoing work by both NTUA crews and those visiting from other agencies on and off the reservation.

Besides asking for funds from its own tribal council and a hodgepodge of tribal, state and county agencies, the Navajo Nation has a new source of support in the federal government. The tribe is working toward its own emergency declaration, made possible when President Obama amended the Stafford Act, on Jan. 29, to allow federally recognized tribes to seek a federal emergency or major disaster declaration directly from the President.

“A lot of tribes are watching us to see how we handle this,” Zah said. “It’s a brand-new process. It’s something that’s never been done in U.S. history.”

Tribal personnel have been working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to quantify disaster-related costs; they appealed to the President for funds on Feb. 20.

Rose Whitehair is the emergency manager for the Navajo Nation, so it fell to her to coordinate Operation Winter Freeze – and to work with FEMA to meet the deadline for requesting a federal emergency declaration. She said it’s empowering for tribes to be able to deal directly with the federal government, without relying on states.

“There are a number of tribes that just do not have good relationships with states,” she pointed out. “The benefit comes mainly in the sense of being able to do this on our own. We are capable. We have the technical experience, and we have the expertise. We have the nation-to-nation relationship with the President. We don’t need to be dependent on others to do this for us.”

Disrupted lives

It took weeks for 15 NTUA crews, plus eight from the Navajo Engineering and Construction Authority and two from the Salt River Project, in Phoenix, to finish fixing pipes. The jobs that took the longest were the “scattereds,” said NTUA engineer Jason Corral, meaning they’re in the most remote areas.

Once the freezing temperatures and snow gave way to warmer days, getting work equipment stuck in mud became a regular part of the response. Often it was taking a crew an entire day just to restore water to a single home.

Lydia A. Lee, an elder in the eastern Navajo community of Red Gap, waited for two weeks for a crew to fix the broken pipe outside her home. Meanwhile, she bought bottled water for drinking 30 miles away in Fort Defiance, and benefitted from a donation of wash water from her church. On the bright side, her pipes might be more reliable than before, Corral said – to him, the old pipes outside her hogan looked like they’d been at risk for freezing for years.

As for the crews slogging through the mud to restore water to Navajo Nation residents, they seem more than willing to help. Zah noted that OSHA regulations limit workers to 75 hours a week, and up to 15 hours a day.

“They’re hard workers,” he said. “They’d work more if they could.”

The sacrifice was evident in a worker like Rico Burbank, a young NTUA pipe layer and operator who has a newborn at home in Chinle, Ariz., with his wife, Regina. He said it was hard to be away from his three-monthold son, Elias, but he seemed resigned to the call of duty.

“I see him once a week,” he said. “Every Friday I go home, see him, and come back to work again.”

Wider issue?

Rex Kontz, deputy general manager for the NTUA, said although many of the frozen pipes were installed in the 1950s, the freak weather was much more to blame than any engineering shortfalls.

For starters, most of the pipes are buried at a safe depth of three to four feet beneath the surface.

“We’ve discovered some pipes that are shallow, from people who have re-graded roads, or from erosion,” he said. “But we had some pipes at normal depth that were freezing, big control valves that just completely split and cracked. In the 26 years I’ve been at NTUA, I’ve never seen a main line freeze at that depth.”

Kontz said before the 1960s pipes were installed by the Navajo Nation or the BIA. Starting in about the 1960s, Indian Health Service took over. He worked with the IHS in the 1980s, and at that time they were using PVC pipes, which withstand freezing better than older, galvanized iron pipes that underlie most of the reservation – including the tribal office complex. To

some extent, he said, the pipes that were likely to be problematic have now been revealed. To revamp all the old, at-risk piping could cost close to $1 billion.

“We’re going to look at the places where we did have those types of issues and see if we can do something. It’s something we’re going to have to scale over years,” Kontz said.

A road in ruins

Meanwhile, details are still emerging about the freak road collapse Feb. 20 that has impeded travel about 20 miles south of Page, Ariz. Geologists have revealed that the road was built on an ancient landslide, and engineers are still debating whether to repair Highway 89, or pave an alternate route through the Navajo Nation.

Approximately 150 feet of pavement buckled 4 to 6 feet, according to the Arizona Department of Transportation. U.S. 89 is closed northbound at U.S. 89A. In Page, U.S. 89 is closed at the junction with State Route 98.

U.S. 89 will remain closed for an extended period, according to ADOT. There is no timetable to reopen it.

Drivers headed to Lake Powell and southern Utah have to take an alternate route that involves going east on U.S. 160 to State Route 98 and north on SR 98 to Page. The detour is about 45 miles longer than the direct route.

The tribe declared a reservation-wide state of emergency relating to travel to schools and work in Page on Feb. 24, and Navajo Nation officials have made moves toward a second federal emergency declaration in as many months.

“Just when we were getting the Operation Winter Freeze paperwork signed, that’s when the second one came,” Whitehair said. “It definitely was an experience. “

Ben Bennett, Navajo Division of Transportation deputy director, said emergency funding would be used to reimburse some of the costs involved in grading, building up, and perhaps graveling alternative roads.

According to an ADOT press release, ADOT is also working with the Arizona- Governor’s Office and the Arizona Division of Emergency Management to obtain an emergency declaration that will allow ADOT to be reimbursed for the highway reconstruction.

Residents in the locally affected area have had to find alternate routes to school and work, and school buses and ambulances have been making longer commutes. Navajo Route 20, a 28-mile stretch of dirt road from Bodaway/Gap to Coppermine has taken on increased traffic since the damage occurred to U.S. 89.

“N-20 usually receives 100 vehicles a day. U.S. 89 receives about 3,100 vehicles a day,” said Bennett, explaining that N-20 is not currently fit to take on heavy traffic.

N-20 has been on the NDOT’s pavement priority list for years.

“Even if Highway 89 wasn’t in jeopardy, the community still needs N-20 paved,” said Navajo Nation Council Delegate Tsinigine, who serves Bodaway/Gap, Coppermine, and three other chapters. “So, hopefully, this will be a positive impact in terms of getting it paved.”

From March 2013.