Valerie Taliman
Snow on the Navajo Nation reservation, where the ground froze to such a depth after prolonged below-zero temperatures that pipes and major water mains burst across the reservation.

President Obama Signs Disaster Declaration for Navajo Nation, the Second Tribe to Receive Direct FEMA Assistance

March 05, 2013

President Barack Obama has made the Navajo Nation the second tribe to receive direct aid under a recent Stafford Act amendment, declaring a major disaster on the reservation due to water problems created by a severe, prolonged freeze that has cut or obstructed supply to about 3,000 homes.

On March 5 Obama ordered that federal aid be given to supplement the tribe’s recovery efforts, which Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly estimates will cost $2.8 million. The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) named Mark A. Neveau as the federal coordinating officer for the operation.

“Federal funding is available to the Navajo Nation and certain private nonprofit organizations on a cost-sharing basis for emergency work and the repair or replacement of facilities damaged by the severe freeze,” the White House said in a statement. “Federal funding is also available on a cost-sharing basis for hazard mitigation measures for the Tribe.”

The Navajo Nation has been digging out of a deep freeze that lasted roughly from December 15, 2012, to January 21, 2013, the period covered by the declaration. Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly signed an emergency resolution on Friday January 25 because of frozen waterlines, run-down water storage containers and weather-damaged water systems severe enough to cripple the reservation’s delivery system. Shelly also requested the FEMA disaster declaration in the wake of the passage of the Stafford Act amendment and on February 4 began seeking $2.8 million from various government agencies to help the tribe cope with what has come to be known as Operation Winter Freeze.

“People with health risks don’t have running water, some communities have low water pressure that are putting health centers and hospitals at risk of closure,” Shelly said in a statement at the time. “We are facing an emergency that is putting lives at risk.”

During those three weeks in December and January, temperatures were 20 below zero at night and never got above freezing during the day. This froze the ground to the depth of the water pipes, much deeper than the usual winter freeze, and they started bursting and leaking throughout the system. Each repair caused breaks elsewhere as the water rushed into one repaired pipe, only to hit another frozen section. The disaster spread across Tuba City, Arizona and Navajo Mountain in southern Utah, to Window Rock and Crownpoint, New Mexico.

Obama signed the Stafford Act amendment, the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013, into law in late January. The legislation included a provision allowing federally recognized tribes to apply for disaster relief as a state would, under their status as sovereign nations. On March 1, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians became the first American Indian tribe to benefit from this, receiving a Presidential Disaster Declaration of a major disaster on the reservation due to severe weather.

The Navajo Nation could get more assistance as well, if needed, FEMA said in the White House statement. “Additional designations may be made at a later date if requested by the Tribe and warranted by the results of further damage assessments.”