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No Power for the Powerless

Fred Harper

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.

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.

The BIA, meanwhile, is responsible for operating the power line that connects with Mohave Electric's line at the edge of the canyon and runs to the village of Supai, thousands of feet below the rim. The BIA line also is decrepit and needs an overhaul.

The Havasupai are the big losers in this turf war between the BIA and Mohave Electric. Neither the utility nor the BIA has been providing routine maintenance along the 70-mile distribution line.

The lack of maintenance has left Supai vulnerable to frequent and lengthy blackouts. There were more than 17 power outages in Supai in the past two years, some of them lasting weeks at a time, Bob McNichols, the former BIA superintendent for the Havasupai tribe, tells me.

The blackouts are devastating to the tribe.

Tribal chairman Thomas Siyuja told me about a litany of problems that have been endured by the community because of the frequent and lengthy power failures.

"This is a really big impact on the tribe and the people who are losing all their food and frozen meat in their freezers," Siyuja says.

Getting food is no easy task in Supai. It must be packed in by horses or flown in by helicopter.

Siyuja says medicine that needs refrigeration has been ruined, including drugs needed to treat diabetes that is rampant in the community.

Elderly and young members of the community have been ravished by heat strokes, Siyuja says. During the most recent blackout, several tribe members were evacuated by helicopter to hospitals for heat-related ailments.

The community's only store and cafe were forced to close.

Siyuja says the community's water system was crippled and emergency backup generators were inoperable during the most recent blackout because the tribe lacked propane needed to run them.

With limited water supplies, the village was unable to save a house that burned down after the power was temporarily restored.

The village's lodge that hosts tourists from around the world was forced to close, costing the impoverished tribe untold revenue.

The power outages are a black mark for Arizona tourism.

I met a family from Denmark who had just hiked down the trail into Supai, expecting to stay in the lodge. But the lodge was closed because of the blackouts. Eva Langkjer and her family members started hiking into the canyon at 4 a.m. and were now faced with having to turn around and hike back out because there was no place for them to stay.

"We planned to eat at the restaurant and cafe and bring as little as possible and buy what we need," Langkjer says.

The trip to Havasupai was to be the highlight of the family's vacation to America, she says.

Utility executives, BIA bureaucrats and Arizona elected officials have shown little empathy to the power plight faced by the Havasupai.

The only person in state government who appears to be seriously concerned is state Corporation Commissioner Kris Mayes. She's been closely following the issue and has encouraged the BIA and Mohave Electric to reach a negotiated settlement and immediately take steps to make sure electricity is delivered to the tribe in a reliable manner.

"The people who are hurt are the Havasupai, and that's just not right," Mayes says. "That really angers me, and it's gone on way too long. Some branch of government needs to step up and resolve the issues."

The logical branch of government to step up and demand that the BIA and Mohave Electric settle their differences and take steps to assure that power is delivered to the Havasupai is the governor.

Her office did not return my call to discuss this issue. This leads me to believe that Napolitano will do nothing on this issue because there is no political gain in helping out a few Indians at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.


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