'The world looks different'
Officials meet to discuss impact of U.S. 89 landslide
By Krista Allen
Special to the Times
BITTER SPRINGS, Ariz., February 28, 2013
H ighway 89 cuts its way through some of the most magnificent scenery in the Western United States, with a string of seven national parks and 14 national monuments.
Sometimes called "The National Park Highway," it also connects the western chapters of the Navajo Nation to the shops, schools and businesses of Page, Ariz.
Just south of Page, in one of its more spectacular stretches, U.S. 89 climbs 1,000 feet in three miles, following the course of the Echo Cliffs through Antelope Pass onto the Kaibito Plateau.
At least, it used to.
A landslide, kéyah deeshzhóód in Navajo, caused about 150 feet of pavement to buckle 25 miles south of Page, Ariz. last Wednesday right near the Antelope Pass Scenic Overlook where the Antelope Trails Vendors Organization (ATVO) - a nonprofit group whose charter is to provide employment opportunities for members of the Bodaway-Gap Chapter - sell their handmade jewelry.
The road started to fracture about 5 a.m.
"I was still sleeping," Arizona Department of Public Safety Officer Alex Whitehair said in Navajo on Saturday at a special meeting in Coppermine, Ariz. concerning the U.S. 89 "Big Cut" closure. "It was about 5:40 a.m. when I received a call about two cars falling into a sinkhole."
The Navajo Police, Arizona Department of Transportation, and other emergency services were already on the scene at 6 a.m.
"When I got there, there was nothing," Whitehair said. "It wasn't like that. It was something unnatural."
Evidently, two drivers had skidded into the cavity in the road. One of the young drivers' airbag deployed when her car plowed into a crevice. The other driver plunged into a gap, which caused the oil pan on his car to rupture.
"He managed to get out of the gap before the road caved in," Whitehair said. After driving out of the opening, the driver parked on the right side of the road and got out to find the road sliding.
"He said he got back into the car and drove further up the hill as the road caved in," Whitehair said.
While at the Western Agency elected officials' orientation in Flagstaff, Coppermine Chapter President Floyd Stevens received a text message reading that there was a rockslide on U.S. 89.
"We didn't think much of it at the time because it's always kind of routine that occasional rocks come down onto the road, and sometimes mudslides," Stevens said. "So we thought of it in that way until some of the actual pictures started coming in, showing the actual road damage."
Stevens coordinated a special meeting Saturday afternoon at the Coppermine Chapter House where Coconino County Supervisor Lena Fowler and several chapter officials spoke in Navajo to disseminate the correct information about the Big Cut incident.
The Coppermine Chapter requested and recommended an emergency declaration apropos of the incident last week. That was sent to President Ben Shelly, who declared an emergency on Sunday.
"It will help us as a chapter since we've been asking for the paving of N-20 (the detour around the buckled road) for the last 40 years or so," Stevens said. "Here, this (incident) falls onto our lap - now we can take advantage of it and say, 'Pave it.'"
Several community members voiced their concerns about the 28 miles of harsh, rough road that has been ruffling feathers for many years.
"I'm not thankful for the emergency that we are in. Our road is not good, it burdens us," Coppermine Chapter vice-president Lola Smith said in Navajo during the comment section of the meeting. "We've been trying to work on it for years. So due to what happened on (U.S. 89), we're thinking our road is finally going to go into process and get paved."
On Sunday, Bodaway-Gap community members met at the chapter house with leaders from the Navajo Nation Executive Branch to discuss the impact of the road closure.
Coppermine Chapter took $13,157.11 from its budget to pool resources and implement a course of action to maintain N-20 as an alternate route. Approximately 20 miles of U.S. 89 (from mileposts 523 to 546) is now closed north of the U.S. 89A junction.
"We want people to know it's still accessible," Coconino County Emergency Management Director Robert Rowley said Thursday at a meeting he and Fowler called regarding the incident.
About 100 people gathered at the Page City Hall for that meeting. Page Mayor Bill Diak and the Page Chamber of Commerce began the meeting at 9:10 a.m. after Fowler and Rowley made it to Page from Flagstaff, driving in on N-20.
"We were able to see what N-20 was like," Fowler said. "On our way in, we met up with a trucker that was stuck just five miles in."
Because Route 20 is a rugged, dirt road, it's not recommended for heavy motor vehicles.
Fowler said ADOT was rerouting travelers east through Tuba City on U.S. Highway 160 and north on State Route 98, adding more than 117 miles, to get to Page Wednesday morning after the incident.
"That's a long route," Fowler said.
"The world today certainly looks a little bit different to us than it did yesterday when we got up," Rowley said Thursday. "There are certainly some challenges ahead."
Foremost, the cause of the landslide is still unknown. According to ADOT, U.S. 89 "will be closed for the immediate future as geotechnical experts and (ADOT) engineers examine the mountain slope and roadbed to determine the exact cause of the damage, and what steps are required to reconstruct the roadway and get it back into shape for travelers."
Confusion about the Big Cut closure has caused significantly impacted the ATVO, Page and Marble Canyon businesses, and kiosks along U.S. 89.
"We're one of many operations up here in Page that uses the tourism during the season," Colorado River Discovery owner Scott Seyler said Thursday at the road closure meeting in Page. "We alone impact about 60,000 people that come visit us every year, and during the season we'll have up to 60 employees (some of them Diné) that will have to serve those 60,000 people."
"The lifeline for us is that road, getting down to Lee's Ferry," Seyler continued. "Any other option that goes around that is just a death sentence. And we need to find some source to either get a bypass road."
Antelope Canyon Tours owner Carolene Ekis, a Diné, says she's worried about the potential decrease in visitors for spring break in March.
"(People from) Southern Arizona and Southern California are going to be coming up this way. And they usually visit the Grand Canyon, making their way here," Ekis said. "It will really affect the (city of Page)."
According to ADOT, detours are now in place for motorists traveling to and from Page and Southern Utah. Alternate routes include U.S. 160 and SR 98, and U.S. 89A and U.S. 89 through Kanab, Utah.
"U.S. 89 is open, you just can't drive through the cut into Page," Fowler said.
Page Unified School District Superintendent Jim Walker says all students riding the bus from Cedar Ridge, Echo Cliffs, and Marble Canyon areas will be picked up one hour earlier than normal times, arriving home a little later in the afternoon.
The road to Page was widened and modernized in the 1950s to handle construction traffic to the Glen Canyon Dam.
Tribe seeks federal emergency funds for Highway 89
By Noel Lyn Smith
WINDOW ROCK - Now that Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly has declared a state of emergency for U.S. Highway 89, tribal officials are seeking emergency funding.
On Feb. 20, an apparent landslide ripped through a section of the highway along a mountain slope about 25 miles south of Page, Ariz., buckling more than 150 feet of roadway and tearing the pavement.
The damage caused the Arizona Department of Transportation to close the highway from mileposts 523 to 546, between the U.S. 89A junction near Bitter Springs, Ariz. to the State Route 98 junction near Page.
The closure has impacted local residents and chapters, said Ben Bennett, deputy director for Navajo Division of Transportation.
An alternative route that drivers have been using is Navajo Route 20, a 28-mile dirt road stretching from Bodaway-Gap to LeChee chapters.
Navajo Division of Transportation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs have begun working together to maintain Navajo Route 20 for this recent traffic increase.
Since Shelly declared the road closure an emergency, the tribe can now ask President Barack Obama to issue a major disaster declaration and approve federal emergency aid.
If the tribe received such funding it would be used to reimburse the cost of maintaining Navajo Route 20 and other roads in the area, Bennett said.
Bennett, who also serves on the tribe's Commission on Emergency Management, said the commission passed the emergency declaration because the closure reduced local residents' access to work, schools and businesses.
"We did our assessment. We saw a need for it," he said.
Council delegate Duane Tsinigine (Bodaway-Gap/Coppermine/K'ai'bii'tó/LeChee/Red Lake-Tonalea) said the road closure could provide a silver lining for Navajo Route 20, which has been on and off the roads priority list for about 10 years, by finally being paved.
Roland Becenti, acting division manager for BIA Navajo Region Division of Transportation, said money had been allocated for preliminary engineering and design but no environmental clearance or right-of-way has been issued so there are no future plans to pave the road.
"I've been lobbying and advocating for this highway. I'm tired of red tape. That's what I'm dealing with but we need it paved," Tsinigine said. "Even if Highway 89 did not get jeopardized the communities still needed it paved."
Becenti reiterated that since the closure ADOT has directed traffic to alternate routes and crews from the BIA's Western Agency have been maintaining BIA roads 6210 and 6211.
"The problem has been since then we've been having a lot of interstate traffic going on there," he said.
Despite consulting with ADOT on detour routes, the BIA has told ADOT that the BIA is not interested in taking on interstate traffic on any unapproved BIA roads, he said.
Becenti added that a meeting was scheduled for Wednesday between Arizona Department of Transportation, Coconino County, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Navajo Division of Transportation in Flagstaff.
"There are a lot of uncertainties in the matter so ADOT is going to provide us their latest updates," Becenti said, then added that the information could include proposals to repair the highway.