Several million in damage but no loss of life in wake of Tohono O’odham flooding

Lee Allen

Damage was in the districts of Sif Oidak and Pisinemo where 3-4 feet of mud and running water flowed through some homes

The members of the Tohono O’odham Nation, who live in rural villages, weren’t prepared for the ferocity of Hurricane Rosa as its remnants came racing through the Northern Sonoran desert on October 2.

“In five hours that morning, our Water Resource Department said we received a record seven inches of rain that resulted in near-100-year flooding,” according to Nation Chairman Edward Manuel as he officially declared a state of emergency. Washes overflowed their banks, roads disappeared under the flow, and isolated homes became islands surrounded by water.

“The entire western portion of our nation, five districts, over 200 square miles was impacted,” said tribal Public Safety Director Richard Saunders. Assessments of residential damage as well as damage to public buildings, utility systems, bridges, and roadway are still being conducted.

“There are no official dollar estimates of damage as of yet, but the initial number is beyond several million dollars. We have 30 days to complete our damage estimates before FEMA enters the picture in the form of an approved emergency declaration.”

Tribal radio station KOHN became THE source of fast-breaking news and Chairman Manuel posted a 10-minute O’odham-language video cautiously noting, “We dodged a bullet.”

On October 16, the Tohono O’odham Nation Department of Public Safety lifted the evacuation notice and members able to return to their homes were transported there from the Sells Emergency Shelter by the American Red Cross.

During the storm, residents faced a number of obstacles.

The Arizona Emergency Information Network called it “unprecedented levels of flooding” and

concern increased about the stability of the community dam, a 22-foot-high, nearly 100-year-old earthen structure on the south end of the village. Menagers Dam ultimately didn’t top out or give way, although water levels did crest near the level of the berm that volunteers buttressed with sandbags.

Before roads became flooded and impassible, many got out of the storm’s path quickly departing their homes in private vehicles while an estimated 40 residents were evacuated to nearby emergency shelters with the assistance of the Nation’s Office of Emergency Management, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and Pima County Swift Water Rescue teams.

To add insult to injury, another tropical storm (Sergio) arrived just days later and dumped an additional inch of rain on already-saturated grounds and still-running washes, exacerbating the dam’s danger and stalling efforts to make a speedy return to normal. To ensure community safety, pumping operations were set up at the dam where five drain pipes began discharging 84 million gallons of water per day into a tributary wash.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs deployed engineers and equipment from Denver to pump the lake’s water level while as many as 100 Red Cross personnel, correctional facility trustees, tribal department employees, and others with kind hearts and strong backs helped fill and place more than a thousand sandbags atop the dam.

The Nation’s Planning Department, Natural Resources Department, and the Tohono O’odham Utility Authority sloshed through slowly-receding muddy waters to complete residential infrastructure estimates and damage estimates on 64 homes in Gu Vo, Pisinemo, Sif Oidak, and Hickiwan. The preponderance of home damage was in the districts of Sif Oidak and Pisinemo where as much as 3-4 feet of mud and running water flowed through residences.

Noted Safety Director Saunders: “Despite the potential for catastrophe, there was not a single loss of life during the event.”

Added the Chairman: “It was like a large team pulling together as everyone, collectively, did the job they were supposed to do, people helping people.”