The family was frantic as water poured into their home and inundated their land. Panicking, they called emergency services and began transporting their animals to higher ground. That’s how rescuers found them.
“At one point, our members went with fire crews and helped rescue a family whose home was flooding,” said Perry Begaye, chairman of an emergency-services team that steps in to help in extreme conditions. “They were picking up livestock and carrying it to safety.”
Living off the land in remote communities carries a certain allure in offering a way to adhere closely to traditional values, but on the Navajo Nation, with 65 percent of its roads unpaved, driving can be precarious at any time of the year. Throw in winter storms or spring thaws, and driving conditions can mean the difference between life and death.
Heavy snow can cut access to food, fuel or livestock supplies for residents living far from state- or tribal-maintained roads. Perhaps worse than hip-high drifts of snow, however, is the spring thaw, which dissolves dirt roads into rivers of red-brown mud.
A crew of volunteers in the Northern Navajo Agency is tasked with coordinating emergency plowing, food delivery and general welfare checks in 20 communities in portions of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. The Northern Agency Partnership, a volunteer organization that matches resources with needs, often is first to respond in emergencies. The only one of its kind on the 27,000-square-mile reservation, the partnership was formed in 2010, when budget cuts forced local offices of the Department of Emergency Management to close.
The partnership works with community-level officials to plow or repair roads, then coordinates deliveries of food or fuel as needed to sustain residents until they can get out on their own. The rescue crew has a special name for navigating dirt roads that have become impassable except to vehicles with four-wheel drive: mud-bogging.
“The roads turn to mush,” said Leon Spencer, Northern Agency Partnership vice chairman. “We get 10 inches, a foot of mud that we have to drive through. That’s what we call mud-bogging.”
Volunteers accompany emergency personnel as they battle the elements to reach residents stranded by snow, mud, flood or fire. Often they don’t know what they will find when forging their way to remote locations, said Begaye.
Sometimes, families have moved their livestock into the home to shelter them from the cold, Begaye said. Another common sight is empty cupboards or depleted fuel supplies in the homes of the elderly or disabled. When roads are impassable from snow or mud, these people—including some whose only transportation might be a horse—rely heavily on emergency rations delivered by volunteers.
“Pretty much the food issue, that’s common,” Begaye said. “They’re out there, they can’t get into town, and they ran out of canned food or firewood. We check on them, and if we have food with us, we give it to them.”
In 2010, crews hiked for miles through four feet of snow to check on residents in remote areas, said partnership secretary Kerlena Tso. Crews rely heavily on community health representatives and locals who know the roads, how to find residents and which situations are high-risk.
“No map exists out here, so people need to identify the remote residents and what their needs are,” Tso said. “Sometimes we’re the first responders. Sometimes we’re backup. Sometimes we walk through the snow to get there. Often we go in on foot, a mile or more.”
Road maintenance on the Navajo Nation depends on jurisdiction, Begaye said. The Bureau of Indian Affairs maintains major highways while the Navajo Department of Transportation covers smaller roads and communities have jurisdiction of local streets.
The roads that most often turn to mush are self-made, Begaye said. Residents with grazing permits who choose to live in isolated areas without close neighbors often make and maintain their own roads.
“They live out here on purpose,” he said. “There are entire communities where the majority of roads that lead to homes are dirt. These roads get completely washed out at times.”
Emergency crews prioritize those who live near the mountains where snowpack can be the greatest, Begaye said. The elderly are another priority, particularly those who may need medical assistance. In dire situations, residents can get emergency help by helicopter, Begaye said. Otherwise, it can take a day or longer for crews to get in by road—or on foot.
“Ironically, the people who live farthest away are better prepared for life or death situations,” Begaye said. “It’s the people who live in between that we worry about.”
The partnership relies on donations, support and manpower from tribal, county, state and federal departments, as well as local businesses and school districts. Sometimes the partnership’s only role is to find a bulldozer to repair a road so police or health care workers can get through, Begaye said. Other times the partnership is on the front lines, stocking four-wheel-drive trucks with food, hay and coal, and making deliveries during snowstorms or other emergencies.
Snow and mud may be predictable occurrences, but many residents still are caught off guard, Spencer said. That’s why the partnership also promotes sustainability and offers education where it can.
“Navajo people didn’t use to need services like this because they were self-sufficient,” Spencer said. “We have basic human teachings that say we need to provide a fire in the home and a bucket of water. We should pick our own vegetables and raise livestock. The life cycle continues, and these teachings need to come back.”