Hopi, Navajo Reservations Still Cut off by Storms

by Glen Creno
The Arizona Republic
01 February 2010

KYKOTSMOVI VILLAGE — Spectacular mesas dominate the skyline in this northeastern Arizona wonderland, but these days people are looking beyond the rock formations for something much more important: helicopters.

Military choppers have been hauling crucial food, water, coal and wood to rural residents isolated by one of the nastiest winter storms in the state's history. An estimated $1.4 million had been spent on the relief operation as of late last week.

More than 22,000 meals have been distributed to stranded storm victims, along with nearly 27,000 gallons of water, 2,500 blankets from the Red Cross and 125 cots. The rescue effort covers some 20,000 square miles across the Navajo and Hopi reservations, much of it covered by 5-foot to 8-foot snowdrifts that make road travel impossible.

David Wallace/The Arizona Republic
Michael McCray (left) of the Navajo Region Helitack group  and   Phillip  Quochytewa  Jr.   of   the  Hopi  Bureau of Indian Affairs bag blankets at a makeshift helicopter base on the  Hopi Reservation on  Friday as part of a relief operation.

A succession of thunderstorms over two weeks dumped several feet of snow throughout northern Arizona, and the continued ferocity of the weather has been frustrating relief efforts. An extra foot of snow fell on the area Thursday, bringing flood hazards as well as fog that hampered relief efforts. One official said 25 helicopter missions were scrubbed Friday by the bad weather.

About 100 missions had been flown in Apache, Coconino and Navajo counties as of the end of last week, said Eric Neitzel, spokesman for a multiagency emergency task force based in Holbrook. Hopi tribal officials also said they had been helping residents deal with power outages and collapsed roofs caused by the weight of the snow.

The federal government placed three counties under a state of emergency shortly after the first round of storms, freeing resources to help the Hopi and Navajo communities. The relief flights are crucial to the effort because they often are the only way emergency workers can deliver supplies to homes and ranches isolated by heavy snow or, after the fact, maddening mires of mud.

Yet bad weather has grounded three National Guard helicopters for all or parts of three days since the first storm hit Jan. 21. And mechanical problems knocked a chopper out of the game Friday, not that it really mattered. The heavy blanket of clouds and stubborn fog kept the other two grounded.

Natalie Lynch, helicopter base manager for Operation Winter Storm, spends her time trying to direct helicopters loaded with relief supplies from Flagstaff to locations where snowbound residents in the stricken territory need help.

Lynch said some flyovers have spotted people waving flags in desperation. Whenever and wherever possible, supplies are dropped to tide them over until conditions improve.

On Friday, however, dozens of boxes of ready-to-eat meals, or MREs, filled with chicken, spaghetti, beef stew, pasta and vegetarian items were stacked at a state highway yard outside Kykotsmovi, a small Hopi community, unable to be distributed. There also were large containers of water and blankets. All had to be covered by tarps late in the afternoon when flights were socked in.

Relief workers planned to keep flying this week, as long as there were people needing help.

"We were thinking we would get food out to the people," Lynch said. "The lists are piling up. It's beginning to be a back-order situation."

Relief personnel said Friday that they believe the situation in Hopi country has stabilized, with roads being cleared and people becoming self-sufficient. Still, tribal leaders say many areas, including parts of their villages, remain a muddy mess. Vehicles are getting stuck, their occupants requiring rescue.

As lower elevations see conditions shift from snow to mud, most relief efforts will shift to the northernmost parts of the affected counties, where higher elevations still have deep snow. In those areas, even the typical winter-rescue hardware has, at times, been ineffective. Deep drifts have defeated snowmobiles, and bigger snowcats are "few and far between," Neitzel said.

The best that emergency workers can hope for is an end to the storms and continued cool weather that will keep the snow from melting too quickly - a factor that would cause more mud and floods.

"We need a break in the weather - but it can't get too warm," Neitzel said.



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