No Power for the Powerless

Nobody in government's raising hell about the poverty-stricken Havasupai's struggle to survive without electricity during the summer's wrath

Try getting through one summer day of 100-degree-plus weather in Phoenix with no electricity.

It would be beyond miserable and quickly become a matter of life and death. Last summer more than two dozen homeless people fell dead on the streets of Phoenix during a July heat wave.

For most of us, 24 hours without power in the summer would be an ordeal we would never forget. Now imagine going with no electricity for nearly a month during summer's full bake.

Fred Harper

If this happened, I'm certain the governor would declare a state of emergency, the National Guard would be mobilized, evacuations would be ordered and curfews would be enforced in an attempt to prevent looting, violence and general mayhem.

There's no doubt that most of the Valley's three million residents would pack up and flee if power was cut to their homes for 30 of the hottest days of summer.

Of course, this is very unlikely to occur in Phoenix save terrorists blowing up the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station or Edward Abbey's ghost monkey-wrenching the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams on the Colorado River.

But this dreadful scenario of a powerless month is not a fantasy in Arizona. It is happening right now on the Havasupai Indian Reservation, one of the state's most beautiful and remote locations that attracts more than 30,000 visitors a year to its spectacular waterfalls. The temperatures do not get as hot on the Havasupai Reservation as they do in the Valley of the Sun, but they come close.

The fact that the entire reservation has gone without power for weeks on end this summer should be major news — it should be attracting the attention of Governor Janet Napolitano, the Legislature and even Congress. But it isn't.

That's because the people struggling without electricity are politically powerless. The Havasupai — tucked away in a remote corner of Arizona where the 19th century is far more relevant than the 21st — are among the poorest members of our society.

The bottom line: No one with significant political and economic power — from Napolitano on down the line — is raising hell about the fact that the Havasupai are struggling to survive without electricity for weeks at a time in the middle of summer's wrath.

There is little outpouring of support to help these Americans, who also are Native Americans, living deep in the heart of the Grand Canyon. The response to the crisis so far has been a couple of portable generators sent by Coconino County and a few propane grills donated by a home improvement store.

Far more is needed, and needed now.

Last week, I hiked down the dusty, rocky and brutally steep eight-mile dirt trail to Supai, the Havasupai's only village, to get a firsthand account of the blackout's impact on the community.

No cars roam the sun-drenched trails of this tiny hamlet, home to about 640 Havasupai. This is a place where horsepower is measured one animal at a time. And there are plenty of horses in this village that is the most isolated Indian community in the lower 48 states. Mail is delivered each day in packs strapped to the back of horses that navigate the tricky canyon walls.

It was surreal to wander into the powerless village only to run into actor Nicolas Cage and a Hollywood production company making a film. The production company swarmed the village as helicopters ferried generators, equipment and personnel in and out of the community. Local residents sat on benches watching as some of their family members were used as extras for the film about a schoolteacher who goes to work in an Indian community.

The movie crew was in and out in a couple of days, but the extras and their families were not so lucky. Supai has been without power for more than 30 days, since June 8, when lightning struck a power pole perched on the side of a steep canyon wall. It took nearly 20 days for power to be restored as temperatures in the desert village soared above 100 degrees.

No sooner had the power come back on than it was knocked out again by monsoon storms. The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs dispatched emergency work crews that finally restored electricity on July 11. The cost to repair damages to the power line exceeded $400,000.

At first glance, it would appear the Havasupai are simply the unlucky victims of natural forces. But this is not the case.

The tribe is catching fallout from a nasty struggle between the federal government and an electric utility company. For more than a decade, Mohave Electric Power Cooperative and the BIA have been battling over which should provide electricity to the Havasupai. The struggle has been ugly and acrimonious.

Mohave Electric is seeking to abandon a 70-mile power line that runs north from U.S. 66 to the edge of the Grand Canyon and turn it over to the BIA, the Havasupai and their neighbors, the Hualapai. But the federal government and the tribes do not want to assume ownership of the line. The BIA and Mohave Electric have been locked in a legal tussle for years over the issue.

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