3/5/2013 11:58:00 AM ADOT: US 89 closed for the long term Navajo Nation leadership meets with community members at Bodaway Gap Chapter House, President Shelly said repairs will take eight months
An aerial view of the landslide that closed US 89 25 miles south of Page. ADOT has not put a timeline in place for when the roadway might be reopened. Photo/ADOT
Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly meets with chapters affected by the closure of US 89 Feb. 24 at the Gap-Bodaway Chapter House. Shelly signed a Declaration of Emergency sponsored by the Navajo Nation Commission on Emergency Management. Photo/Rick Abasta
Community members met with Navajo Nation executive branch leadership Feb. 24 at the Bodaway Gap Chapter House to discuss the road closure on US 89.
Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly said he signed a declaration of emergency to address the issues chapters in the area face.
Navajo elders from local communities filled the chapter house.
Shelly said the road would be closed for at least eight months and directed Navajo Division of Transportation (NDOT) to work with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to begin maintaining Navajo Route 20, a 28-mile dirt road stretching from Bodaway-Gap to LeChee.
"This road belongs to the state of Arizona. They have a 150-foot wide right-of-way and everything within is their jurisdiction," Shelly said. "Outside that boundary belongs to the Navajo Nation and is NDOT's responsibility."
Navajo Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim said an earthquake did not cause the road collapse.
"It was a rock slide," he said.
He said Shelly asked him to answer questions about what to do culturally when a natural disaster occurs.
"You probably have elders out here in the community. We will defer to them and ask for guidance," Jim said, adding that most traditional Navajos believe discussion of unforeseen disasters should not be allowed because it is the same as willing the event to occur.
"But if we're not prepared, rumors can spread and cause panic and fear," Jim said.
Jim encouraged community members to care for one another and look after their elders.
Chief of Staff Arbin Mitchell explained the declaration of emergency from the Navajo Nation Commission on Emergency Management.
He said the emergency declaration addresses emergency medical services, transportation of school children, the difficulty of getting to work in Page and the financial hit to Navajo vendors and stores in the area.
"It's all a part of this declaration the president signed. What happened with this road is going to hurt people in these areas," Mitchell said.
The maintenance of the N20 road was a major concern for Bodaway-Gap Chapter Vice President Gevern Begay.
"(The road closure) is going to affect and impact not only Coppermine, but Bodaway, LeChee, Cameron, Tuba City, and Coal Mine," Begay said.
She said when the road collapse occurred she was in Flagstaff attending orientation for new chapter officials. The newly elected officials then convened and drafted a resolution declaring an emergency.
Coppermine Chapter Vice President Lola Smith said her constituents were thankful for action from the Navajo Nation executive branch.
"You are aware of our needs," Smith said.
She said the detour has increased the distance workers have to travel to get to Page. It also puts a strain on students who have to travel rough roads for long distances to get school.
"They actually have to get up at five o'clock in the morning to be able to be at school on time," Smith said. "It actually affects over 200 students."
NDOT Director Paulson Chaco responded to concerns and said road graders from the BIA and Coconino County are already working on N20.
"US 89 is the responsibility of ADOT, that road belongs to them. For us, it's N20 and it's a priority," Chaco said.
He said the NDOT road department has taken the lead role in road maintenance activities and invited Department Manager Ray Russell to give a status report to the community.
"We have created an action plan. Since Tuesday, we started assisting BIA Roads Department on N20," Russell said. "We put up electric signage stating 'No Heavy Trucks, Local Traffic Only.'"
He said NDOT will work with BIA to schedule grading activities on N20 at least two times a month or more for six to eight months.
"A year ago, Coppermine requested an intergovernmental agreement with Coconino County to maintain N20. $250,000 was earmarked by NDOT, that's how the county came out to start maintaining the road," Chaco said.
Sara Dale, vice president of LeChee Chapter, was adamant about getting assistance for community members affected by the road closure.
"When you go to Page Walmart, who's working there? Navajos. When you go to Page School District, who do you see teaching? Navajos. When you go to the dam, who assists you there? Navajos. And the Navajo Generating Station, who works there? Navajos," Dale said.
BIA Western Navajo Agency Road Engineer Roland Becenti said the bureau understands the implications of the closure.
A resident of Tuba City, Becenti said he's very familiar with N20 and all the surrounding routes.
"We don't want the BIA roads as a detour," he said, explaining that US 89 has 3,100 vehicles a day traveling through the corridor from Bitter Springs to Page.
"It has 16 percent truck traffic and that amounts to about 500 trucks a day going through there," Becenti said.
Because of the large volume of heavy trucks, he said N20 would only be open to local traffic because of safety reasons.
"I know trucks will get stuck, I know RVs will get stuck," Becenti said.