No thaw

Despite agreement, Bennett Freeze residents still 'poorest of the poor'

By Marley Shebala
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, Jan. 15, 2009

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(Times file photo - Donovan Quintero)

Dorothy Reid, in her 80s, makes her way back to a dilapidated hogan just 3 miles west of Tuba City. The dwelling has no running water and no hope of receiving assistance from the Navajo Nation due to red tape over the land, even though structures just feet away benefit from new powerlines.

More than two years ago, President Joe Shirley Jr. announced that the 40-year-old Bennett Freeze had been lifted through a "historic" agreement with the Hopi Tribe.

But according to a "Final All Chapter Summit" report published Aug. 6, not much has changed in the 700,000-acre area.

And in the words of Navajo-Hopi Land Development Office director Roman Bitsuie, the people there remain the "poorest of the poor."

In 2006, Bitsuie testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Resources, explaining that the affected area is "where for approximately 40 years Navajos have lived under a federal construction freeze that has effectively sealed them in an economic time capsule circa 1966, making them the poorest of the poor."

WHPacific Inc., an Alaska-based consultant hired to draw up a needs list following the lifting of the freeze, produced the chapter summit report. It is based on several public forums held in May and July with the affected communities of Bodaway/Gap, Cameron, Coalmine Canyon, Coppermine, Kaibeto, Leupp, Tolani Lake, Tonalea and Tuba City.

WHPacific also produced a "Former Bennett Freeze Area Recovery Plan" for the Former Bennett Freeze Area Task Force, which was appointed by Shirley to spearhead rehabilitation efforts. The task force is expected to approve the report this Friday, Jan. 16.

The task force met Monday (Jan. 12) to discuss the draft recovery plan but after a plea from Council Delegate Leslie Dele, who represents Tonalea, it agreed to complete the review this week and meet via teleconferencing Friday to approve it.

Dele, a member of the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission and chairman of its 1934 Reservation Subcommittee, stressed to the task force the urgency of approving the recovery plan so it could be immediately sent to Congress and President-elect Barack Obama for federal funding.

In a Jan. 5 letter to Obama, Shirley included $110 million for housing in the former Bennett Freeze area. The funding was included in a $2.9 billion wish list of funding priorities for the Navajo Nation. (See separate story)

Jim Store, task force chairman and Shirley's staff assistant, declined to release the draft recovery plan at Monday's meeting, saying that Shirley would authorize public distribution of the final plan.

According to WHPacific's final chapter summit report, five of the nine chapters identified housing as their top priority but the report did not include an estimate of cost.

A field-team assessment found that of the 1,351 houses in the former freeze area, 352 were in fair condition, 522 were in poor condition, and 301 were in very poor condition.

The field team's definition for "very poor" was "dangerous and/or unhealthy to live in" and "needs to be replaced or have major renovations."

"Poor" meant that the house needs repairs immediately, that damaged portions of the structure are likely damaging more of the structure, that the house is possibly hazardous or dangerous throughout, and that the house cannot be used for much longer if significant repairs are not done to correct broken windows, doors and porches, missing handrails, severely cracked and/or tilting foundations and failed roofing.

The definition for "fair" was a house that needs maintenance and repairs, or has weather or age damage that is not currently threatening the integrity of the building but will eventually do so.

The team did not identify any houses in good or very good condition.

Of the 1,351 houses, 532, or 39 percent, were served by public water systems and 392, or 29 percent, had a cistern. And for 427 houses, there was no information about how water was provided.

The chapter summit report also states that all 940 miles of roads in the former freeze area were in very poor condition, including 170 miles classified as major arterial and community roads.

"Very poor condition" was defined as a road that required 4-wheel drive and slow driving speeds, had many holes, cracks and ruts, had a high likelihood of causing vehicle damage or getting the vehicle stuck and needs to be replaced.

The capital improvement projects that the nine chapters all agreed on were health clinics, adult education facilities, shelters/group homes for domestic violence victims, community centers, and outdoor sports complexes.

The total cost estimate to provide the amenities expected in a modern American community was $730 million, and included elder care facilities, fire and police stations, day care centers, chapter houses, schools and animal shelters.

Stanley M. Reich, WHPacific's Albuquerque office manager, said Wednesday that he did not know how many of the requested projects in the former Bennett Freeze were ready for construction, or the estimated housing cost.

According to WHPacific, projects would most likely be a priority for funding if they were project-ready, which means the chapter had approved the land withdrawal, project plans and any needed agreements for construction and operating funds.

Reich said Roger Easley, WHPacific's project manager for the recovery plan, would have more information and answers to questions by Thursday or Friday.

Reich said the tribe's Design and Engineering Department contracted with WHPacific in April or May of 2008 to produce a recovery plan and is paying $800,000 for it.

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