Lessons Learned and Lessons Ignored – A Commentary on Disaster and Hazard Mitigation for the Navajo Nation and Beyond

by Rosalie (Rose) Whitehair (Dine’ Nation) – Emergency Manager, Disaster Response and Recovery – High Water Mark, LLC ,and Dr. Christopher Dyer  (President/University of New Mexico Gallup

A recent study by the University of Arizona revealed that the Navajo use river water in 40 different ways. Yet the average household on Navajo land only uses 5 gallons of water per day, mostly due to the lack of running water, even though 250 miles of the river runs along several communities along the northern part of the Navajo reservation. During the Four Corners gold rush, many mines were left to the communities, emptied of their treasures and the hazardous toxic waste left to leak into the waters. No one was held responsible. In August of 2015, the Gold King Mine spilled millions of gallons of toxic chemicals into the rivers of the Four Corners region. Now, barium, cadmium, arsenic, lead and several other toxic chemicals continue to rise in the sediment during moments of turbidity in the Navajo rivers.  (Brewer, 2016)

Native communities continue to be undervalued and put at risk for the sake of energy “progress.” Hundreds of Native American Tribes, including Navajo, have joined the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in halting, by physical presence, the continued construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. This pipeline is intended to carry billions of gallons of Bakken Crude oil, in many areas across or contiguous to native lands. Yet no Material Safety Data Sheet exists that can accurately describe all the chemicals present in the extremely toxic crude that will flow through this pipeline, making it problematic for responders to be able to safely and effectively respond if a spill occurs. The pipeline is destined to run under the Missouri river, leading to the Mississippi, and the possibility exists of contaminating over 200 tributaries and the drinking water of 18 million people. The fact is, over time, infrastructure weakens and pipelines eventually fail. By the time a leak can be detected, major, irreversible environmental damage could already have occurred.

Oil is transported via many alternative methods including by railway and highway. Both of these methods are highly regulated by the U.S. government and boast extensive, well trained mitigation and disaster response teams. The oil companies state that their pipelines are still safer and more efficient, yet lack the same precautionary studies, methods or regulations.

It is with this in mind, that there is great hesitancy to write of successes and “lessons learned”. The lessons are not being learned. The successes are trial and error, and FEMA’s After Action reports on the “next disaster” will reflect an accelerated degradation of natural and human environments. This will be most severe for marginal areas (such as tribal lands) least able to recover from the aftermath. Moreover, these areas will see a rise in “secondary disasters” (lost infrastructure, human disease, livestock death, despair, and suicide) that follow the initial disaster. How do we prepare for the next “200-year flood” that will occur in less than 5 years? How do we teach our Native children their heritage of smoking salmon, or elk, caribou when there are cancerous spots in the meat of what sustained our people previously? How do we teach our children to use every part of butchering a sheep, when the organs are the main parts that will be affected by lead poisoning? Climate change and the disaster it brings will continue to wreak havoc with the practiced norms and lifeways of Native peoples. It is with a heavy heart that it is written, again and again, that harmful change is occurring at an increasing pace. For the Emergency Managers, there is job security, but for the people there is ever increasing imbalance in our human condition.

So how do we, as Tribal people, move forward towards disaster resiliency? How does a tribal nation with historically very little funding, and poverty stricken communities prepare for disasters and move towards recovery? In one word, Resiliency. It is in our bones; it is in our blood. The earth has always moved, and our People have always moved with her. Adaptability and awareness of our surroundings has always been key.

Adaptability to ever-changing policies and accelerated disaster events can be somewhat mitigated through federal funding. This is facilitated by training, testing and credentialing of Native American professionals in the policies and practices of FEMA. As of January of 2013, the Stafford Act recognizes the sovereign ability of tribes to work with their FEMA region and request a Federal Disaster Declaration from the White House. Previously, Tribes had to work directly with the states to request a Stafford Act declaration on the Tribes’ behalf, resulting in delayed mitigation and slow or no disaster recovery assistance. Many tribes are not familiar with the requirements to become a grantee for a federal disaster declaration and are still dependent upon the states to become the grantee for disasters on tribal lands. As of the writing of this article, ten Tribes have requested a Major Disaster Declaration and eight have been successful. For the Navajo Nation, tribal policies had to be re-written to allow timely receipt of emergency funding.

Recently released Public Assistance Required Minimum Standards, FEMA Recovery Policy FP-104-009-4, states that “FEMA’s Public Assistance program will generally require the integration and use of the hazard resistant provisions of the International Code Council’s (ICC) International Building Code (IBC), the International Existing Building Code (IEBC), and/or the International Residential Code (IRC) as a minimum design standard for all eligible building restoration projects where the design standard is triggered”. This will be an interesting development for Tribes that depends on unique construction and materials used for post-disaster reconstruction of longhouses, hogans, adobes and other traditional dwellings that require special consideration. Application and understanding of culturally appropriate building techniques and materials would in effect have to become part of the disaster response tool kit for those serving Native peoples.

When the Navajo Nation was hit with a prolonged winter freeze in 2012 that lasted months, the ground had frozen as much as four feet deep. Water pipelines froze in several areas on Navajo land which has a larger land base than Switzerland. As the water in underground pipes froze, the ice expanded, causing cracks in the pipelines. As one area would thaw, other areas remained frozen, causing more water damage as systems would flush and crack under the increased water pressure. The newly minted Emergency Operations Center (EOC) of the Navajo Nation was run by only three people at the time, responding to a disaster event covering an area roughly the size of West Virginia. For months over 20,000 people on the Navajo Nation were without running water.

The next year in 2014, the Navajo Emergency Management program was only allowed $6,000 for their operational budget for the entire fiscal year. The only way that disaster response could be effective under these unrealistic financial restraints was to increase operational staffing, including volunteers, through accelerated training programs. Training in the Incident Command System, Incident Action Plans, and National Incident Management Systems was necessary for all programs and personnel involved. A key part of this training was CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) training. This was held in several pilot communities in hard hit areas so that the Navajo “chapters” (akin to counties) in these areas could establish their own shelters and Incident Command Posts. Within three years and 14 events later, the Navajo Nation EOC was able to log in 200 volunteers that assisted during months of activation for wildfires, storm surges, flooding events and most recently the Gold King Mine Spill.

Another key part of training was how to properly document disaster paperwork for federal reimbursement. Many of the chapter coordinators and leadership had very little experience in the requirements needed to pass a U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of the Inspector General audit. Our office thus kept it simple, as we borrowed from the State of Arizona and FEMA’s LEMO (Labor, Equipment, Materials and Other) Language – a simple one-page form could be filled out on a daily basis for each disaster site. (The Navajo Nation made it accessible to all chapters to be able to effectively monitor their disaster response and recovery efforts: http://www.nndcd.org/documents.aspx). The training of the tribe’s program employees and tribal volunteers is what has helped the tribe to close out a ten-year-old FEMA grant and allow for expedited processing of FEMA Public Assistance checks to impacted communities. Through governance patterns and adjusting policy to the vulnerability of their own populations and communities to disaster events, the Navajo Nation has adapted.

Mitigation and preparedness is not new to Tribes. Devolution and Reconstitution are new terms in continuity planning, but to the tribes, adaptive strategies have long included migration out of impacted zones, aid through extended family, clans and networks with other Tribes and communal support. Economic strategies have included different subsistence activities at different seasonal camps. Summer camps were built at cooler altitudes, and other camps built near resource hot spots to prepare harvesting of the crops, hunting and fishing. Winter camps had dried foods, dried meat and warmer lodging and readiness for long winter conditions. Thus, sustainable adaptation was achieved by responding to the patterns of nature and regional availability of resources, thus movement = sustainability/resiliency. Today with fixed location communities and infrastructure and lack of seasonal migration patterns, Native people more frequently suffer the consequences of local hazards, disasters, and environmental degradation such as drought and soil erosion. As the earth changes, we will not have much of a choice but to change with it. These voices of vulnerability teach as a lesson, that as disasters increase for those most at risk, wider society must learn from our Native People’s fate or suffer the same outcome.