Disaster Prep: Rose Whitehair Leads Navajo Nation Team as Incidents Abound

Rosalita Whitehair has seen 14 disaster incidents since accepting the job of emergency management director for the Navajo Nation.
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From the time her daughters were young, Rosalita Whitehair worked to hone their survival instincts in case of disaster. Today she instructs fellow Navajo Nation members in the same skills as the tribe’s emergency management director.

“Since my girls were toddlers I've trained them to always look for the exits, in any situation, wherever we were,” Whitehair said in her keynote speech before the Native American Club at Santa Fe Community College during the school’s Native American Week. “It used to bother them, but now they appreciate it. It's up to us—we have to protect ourselves.”

In fact it was her daughters who encouraged her when she did not believe in herself, Whitehair said in her March 22 address. Assuming her role as director was the culmination of a journey of personal empowerment, one that Whitehair freely shared in her talk, “Disasters, Resiliency and Tribal Nations.”

Photo: Courtesy of Santa Fe Community College

“The time to not be preparing for disasters is during one,” Rosalita Whitehair advised the Native American Club at Santa Fe Community College during Native American Week.

“I was in my early twenties in Phoenix, living in the bad part of town, and I had to rebuild my life,” she recounted. “I had been in a violent relationship. So I returned to the rez. And from time to time I would see the EMT guys, the Red Cross and firefighters, working, helping people, and I admired them. But I felt I was not smart, strong, adequate enough to do what they were doing. And back then I really thought I could never do that.”

Her daughters provided the needed encouragement.

“My daughters were the ones who pointed out to me that I had no female role models,” said Whitehair.

Whitehair is also the only tribal adviser to 568 tribes through the National Domestic Preparedness Consortium. They are looking to bring on another for the volunteer position.

Since starting her current job, Whitehair has coordinated response to 14 disasters, most recently the Gold King Mine spill of toxic waste that flowed into the San Juan River last August, and across the Navajo Nation.

“Even in my lifetime I'm seeing more disasters,” she said. “We used to have no events, and people would say, 'What kind of medicine do those Navajos have?' But now, we're getting hit!”

Nowadays she’s training her fellow tribal members to contend with floods, wildfires, drought, landslides, agricultural disasters such as infestations and cattle disease, hazardous materials, potential oil train derailments, and more.

RELATED: Mud-Bogging, Anyone? Slogging Through the Elements for Remote Rescue on Navajo Nation

“And we know the training works,” she said. “Search and rescue, for example. We train people how to sweep the field, and they find people and save lives.”

The Center for Domestic Preparedness in Atlanta offers training geared toward tribes and the specific conditions found on reservations, such as differences in equipment.

“FEMA always says to be prepared with water and food rations for 72 hours,” Whitehair said. “For Indians it could be three weeks, three months, or help might never come.”

She also noted that funding is currently available for tribal disaster preparedness classes, and encouraged tribal members to participate. If the tribes don’t use the funding, they could lose it, she said, because it will look to Congress as if such initiatives are not a priority in Indian country. And the need has never been greater, as evidenced by incidents such as the Gold King Mine spill. Whitehair will be a witness in the litigation swirling around the incident, in which a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency subcontractor working to mitigate an abandoned mine in Colorado accidentally unleashed three million gallons of toxic mine wastewater and tailings laden with heavy metals into the Animas River. That emptied into the San Juan, which then flowed directly through 16 communities of the Navajo Nation, affecting the water supply of 24,000 people in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.

RELATED: Toxic River Spill Flowing Across Navajo Nation Is 3 Million Gallons, Not One: EPA

Navajo Nation 'Weeping' as Toxic Mining Spill Flows Through Reservation

Whitehair could not divulge many details because of the litigation. But she could and did relay her personal experience being on the scene as incident commander for the Navajo Nation.

“I was heartbroken,” she said. “It touched me to my clan: Where the Water Flows Together. Water is sacred. We use it in ceremonies, we pray with it. It was heartbreaking looking at the crops just completely gone, knowing the people wouldn't have the corn pollen to pray with.”

It wasn’t just people they had to assist, she said. They had to keep the animals away from the river and monitor both the animals—mostly sheep—and the people who consume them. The devastation was more than physical, she said; there was a major emotional component. Recovery will be long-term.

She spoke of seeing the devastation close-up and listening to people who depend directly on the river’s waters.

“It's hard to talk about it, it really is,” Whitehair said. “People were weeping. There were three suicides from the area. There was an increase in domestic violence. There are permanent losses.”

It was not only devastating personally but also gave her an inkling of what could happen to humanity without enough water. This sentiment was echoed by her listeners as well.

Valerie Grimley, the American Indian Student Outreach Coordinator for the college who is from Cochiti Pueblo, recalled the aftermath of the Las Conchas fire that burned 150,000 acres in 2011.

RELATED: Devastating Floods Still Plague Santa Clara Pueblo Stemming From 2011 Las Conchas Fire

“Monsoon season was coming, and we were so scared,” Grimley said. “All of our vegetation was gone and we didn't know what would happen in the heavy rains. We were in a panic. What are we going to do? We came together, that social capital you were talking about.”

Native American Club President Andrea Lomayaktewa, 20, also expressed concern.

“It has already been prophesied that we are going to lose our water,” Lomayaktewa said. “The medicine men tell us to respect it. I cherish water a lot. We Hopi are dry farmers, we rely on the rain and snow to nourish our bodies and help our plants grow.”

But with the Peabody Coal Mine taking water, the Hopi’s springs are drying up, she said. Two villages don’t have water or electricity.

“It's scary to read and hear about,” she said. “Native people from Hopi are an hour and a half away from the nearest town in Flagstaff. How can we use water from a spring that's dried up? We're all just scared for that to happen.”

Others were inspired, such as 60-year-old Marlon Guite from the Seneca tribe in New York, who is studying water treatment and biofuel.

“Everyone's an environmentalist now,” he said. “The Gold King Mine disaster opened the eyes of our tribes, that these kinds of things can happen in your own backyard, and we have to be proactive. After watching Rose Whitehair's presentation I'm definitely going to sign up for the Community Emergency Response Team training.”

In helping the larger community, such training brings people together, Whitehair said.

“It brings out the best in people, builds trust neighbor-to-neighbor, gets people checking in on grandma and grandpa, creates social capital where everybody's working together,” she said. “This is what we need to face the future.”