Worst rain in decades

(Courtesy photo)

The floods reached U.S. 191 near Many Farms on Sept. 11.

Residents clean up in aftermath of floods

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, Sept. 19, 2013

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Navajo Technical University students team up by putting up a wall of sandbags to keep a flood of water from causing more damage to one of their school buildings on Friday. (Courtesy photo)

Things were getting back to normal on Tuesday for most of the chapters on the Navajo Reservation hit hard this past week by thunderstorms that caused secondary roads to wash out, homes and businesses to flood and almost 100 Navajo families to find housing elsewhere.

It was, in the opinion of many tribal officials, the worst rain emergency faced by the tribe in decades. But in the end, while damages were probably in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, no deaths were reported.

As for sheep, that was a different matter.

As many as 35 sheep in the Burnham, N.M. area were reported to have been washed away by flooding waters and killed.

Tribal officials also reported hearing of another sheep that had died in the Dennehotso area after being struck by lightning.

It was an emergency didn't let up for more than a week as members of the tribe's emergency office, aided by dozens of volunteers, worked day and night to keep up with the requests for aid that were coming non-stop from almost all parts of the reservation.

But on Tuesday, the requests for aid were dying down and the command center only had a few people still hanging around, preparing to fill requests for sandbags that were still coming in from some chapters that were afraid upcoming storms would create even more flooding.

Rose Whitehair, director of the tribe's Emergency Management Office, after spending a week of 14- and 16-hour days, was taking officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency around to show how the flooding damaged secondary roads, bridges and homes.

And although some chapters like Chinle and Many Farms saw the worst flooding anyone had seen in their lifetimes, residents of Crownpoint, where police were prepared to evacuate the town if the dam burst, could relax when efforts were successful to alleviate the pressure on the dam.

As to where to begin, the answer to that probably is on Sept. 8, a Sunday, the last day of the Navajo Nation Fair.

It rained then and tribal officials said on Monday they started getting a few calls from chapters worried about predictions that the reservation would be receiving several straight days of thunderstorms.

It hit the Arizona chapters first with Chinle, Many Farms, Rock Springs, Rock Point and Tonalea taking the blunt of the flooding.

The tribe set up a command centers at the Wildcat Den in Chinle and at the Many Farms Chapter House, helping families who were forced out of their homes by the rising floods find temporary places to stay.

The Arizona Red Cross sent trucks filled with water, blankets and other items for families who were displaced.

Throughout Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, tribal emergency management personnel dealt with requests from more than 60 chapters for everything from sandbags to bottled water.

The center was also receiving calls from families stranded in their homes because of roads that had been flooded, asking the chapters and tribal officials to help their loved ones who were on medication and were unable to get to the hospital.

Navajo Vice President Rex Lee Jim began surveying the areas hit the worst by the flooding and after making sure that his family in Rock Point was safe and sound, he began calling upon the tribal divisions to urge their employees to volunteer their time at the command center or helping deliver supplies to the chapters.

Michelle Morris, an aide to Jim, was assigned to the command center on Friday, hoping that the rains would subside enough to allow the volunteers and staff there the weekend off to charge their batteries.

But as the problems seemed to get under control in Arizona, chapters in New Mexico began reporting massive problems as the storms shifted their wrath to Eastern Agency.

She said the emergency center also began getting reports on Friday and Saturday of flooding at a number of tribal buildings in Window Rock.

"The zoo reported flooding problems," she said. No animals were hurt but zoo personnel had to deal with the possibility of flooding waters rising high enough to affect some of the animal pens."

Program officials in Window Rock began picking up sandbags to protect offices from the Department of Justice to the EPA and OSHA buildings.

Several roads in Eastern Agency, including U.S. 491 through Naschitti, had to be shut down for a time as water ran across the roadway.

The New Mexico branch of the American Red Cross, as well as state emergency officials, rushed to several chapters, bringing with them blankets and food.

Officials for the Navajo Housing Authority reported that several of their compounds were flooded or in danger of flooding so they had their crews on alert to help out.

NHA reported flooding at its units at Brimhall and Smith Lake, N.M.

Officials for the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority reported damage to their water lines, resulting in some families being without water for a time until NTUA crews repaired the damage.

Tribal officials said they were watching the sewer lagoons operated by NTUA closely during this period for fear if any for these became clogged up, the flooding would only be worse.

Emergency personnel worked throughout Saturday and Sunday with many of them concentrating their efforts on the situation that was developing in Crownpoint.

Officials at Navajo Technical University reported a number of their buildings being flooded and reports began coming in that water behind the earthen dam near Crownpoint was swelling to unprecedented levels. Tribal officials were told on Sunday that the situation was so bad that the dam would more than likely break sometime Sunday night if something wasn't done to alleviate the pressure.

Students at the university, aided by volunteers, filled sandbags, trying to protect those buildings that were still undamaged.

The tribe had set up a command post at the Indian Health Service hospital in Crownpoint and at first was sending families who were displaced by the floods to NTU, but once they found out that the flooding was probably worse there, officials scrambled to find another place to send them.

At the same time, others were trying to divert some of the water from the dam into a spillway to alleviate the pressure.

Frank Chiapetti, superintendent of Gallup-McKinley County Schools, called off classes in all of the Crownpoint public schools on Monday (NTU classes were also cancelled for Monday) in case the dam burst.

In the end, the spillway worked and although a few people in Crownpoint had decided to leave just to be safe, the great majority was able to stay in their homes.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Navajo families in many parts of the reservation were taking off from work to clean up the damage to their homes caused by the floods.

And some may have also been looking at the skies to see if the thunderstorms for this monsoon season were over.

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