Severe floods and hail storms damaged historic houses in Kewa Pueblo in 2013 and 2014.
The damage was so bad that it “decimated our traditional village,” said Herman Sanchez, tribal programs administrator for Kewa. Like other pueblos in New Mexico, every building is built the traditional way: mixing clay, straw and water to make adobe bricks. Everything in the pueblo is built with adobe.
Many of the homes in Kewa Pueblo were built hundreds of years ago. In the late 1600s and 1886, large floods from the Rio Grande destroyed many homes, so much so that the pueblo had to be rebuilt, according to the National Park Service.
Preservation and being culturally sensitive are the most important aspects for a renovation project as unique as this one.
“Traditional living, adobe block with the earthen floors, that’s just part of the culture that’s been there for centuries, and we want to continue that,” Sanchez said. Kewa Pueblo, formerly known as Santo Domingo Pueblo, is located about 40 miles north of Albuquerque, and has a population of nearly 5,400.
The current climate continues to be a factor to take into account.
The pueblo has recently “experienced very high and fast winds, which has caused a tornado and landspouts throughout (New Mexico) and to the extent of damage the landspouts are causing, I do not know at this time,” said Cynthia Naha, director of the Natural Resources Department for Kewa, in an email.
But the monsoonal events in 2013 and 2014 can give an idea on how much infrastructure damage heavy rainfall can do and the pueblo should monitor each season, such as watching forecasts, during construction.
“A changing climate can impact or challenge the progress of renovation, especially as we move into the monsoon season,” she said. “At this time, we cannot necessarily determine the extent or if damage would/could happen during these events.”
The water damages were disastrous for dozens of families living in these houses for the last several years.
Tribal citizen Luciano Bailon, who inherited his parents home in the village, said the roof was torn up, a foot of water leaked onto the floor that got worse with time and the kitchen area caved in due to the weather disasters.
His is one of the eight prioritized homes that are being the first to be repaired. He hopes to see improvements like stronger adobe walls and keeping the homes culturally accurate in order to pass down their history.
“I want my grandkids to learn and know about traditional way of living here in the homes because we have certain ceremonies that we celebrate on our own,” Bailon said.
He applied for the tribe’s housing program before, but there was no indication about which homes were going to be funded. After his parents passed, government officials visited his house 11 times. Yet, no progress was made.
Sanchez said an adjuster from the Federal Emergency Management Agency came to the area in 2014 and had never seen adobe blocks before. An appraisal was made for about 160 homes and $400,000 for rebuilding, which the tribe renegotiated for about $1.3 million.
However, the restrictions were hard to abide by and many of the homes remained unchanged to where they developed severe black mold.
“The FEMA guidelines are very strict,” Sanchez said. “We couldn’t get a licensed contractor to come in and do only a portion of the house; they want to do the entire house.”
Then in February 2020, Sanchez submitted a $1.5 million grant proposal, after the tribal council gave him permission to write it. Kewa Pueblo Gov. Thomas Moquino and some council members met with New Mexico Gov. Lujan Grisham in person. They showed her photos of the catastrophic conditions and reported she was immediately affected by what she saw.
“While they were still in the state legislature, she instructed her cabinet secretaries to come down and do [an] on-site inspection,” Sanchez said.
The two-hour inspection for seven homes by the cabinet secretaries turned into nine hours.
“We were able to secure two million dollars to start the project,” he said.
The pandemic slowed down construction, but the sense of urgency was only heightened because black mold causes respiratory illness and one of the symptoms of the novel coronavirus affects breathing.
In combination with CARES Act funding, $3.4 million was collected to start construction in late October.
Pueblo woman-owned architecture firm helps
Within a few days, Elizabeth Suina, principal architect and owner of Suina Design + Architecture, an all-Native women owned design firm, was assessing homes.
“She would come out and do 3D scan technology on each home. And we matched the original footprint of those homes and block by block, adobe by adobe block, we started rebuilding,” Sanchez said.
The firm is working to “preserve the integrity of the ancestral and traditional design concepts of the original homes.”
“This means, every wall, fireplace, and corridors are rebuilt as they were designed by the generations of community architects and designers before us,” Suina Design + Architecture said in a press release.
Suina, Cochiti Pueblo, is also contracting the project with her construction company she created with Ty Perry called Arrowhead Construction. It was formed specifically because of the renovation project, according to Sanchez.
“Our own tribal members are their employees, and they're helping rebuild these homes,” Sanchez said.
The first house
On March 30, the first rebuilt house was presented to the public with many government officials in attendance. Sanchez said it was encouraging to see Kewa Pueblo Gov. Sidelio Tenorio pass the house keys to Diane Garcia and her daughter, Patricia Garcia.
“It was very heartwarming to be able to finally be able to move the needle on this and be part of it … an enormous effort from all of us,” he said.
Sanchez receives about three phone calls a week from tribal members who have expressed interest in getting on the renovation list. The eight homes with the most damage, however, are the priority based on the FEMA list and the tribal council’s recommendations.
He said to rebuild all of the 160 homes will take about $40 million and will continue to look for funding.
Gov. Grisham’s office has awarded an additional $1 million to the project that will take the tribe into next year, Sanchez said.
And an additional $30 million wastewater infrastructure is also in the works, but the pueblo is seeking additional funding to complete the project.
“We’re gonna rebuild this place up and it’s going to look great one day,” he said.
Bailon said his home renovation has been a long time coming; he waited 10 years to receive his home back due to be placed in a mobile home outside the village that he still resides in today.
The location of his mobile home caused him not to participate in cultural events. His home renovation should be completed in July, which may be just in time for the pueblo’s annual feast day ceremony in August.
“My family members will be coming back to that house, and I hope it’s large enough where all of us can be in that home during the ceremonies when it happens,” he said.
CORRECTION: We have updated an incorrect reference on population and pueblo.