Navajo Nation families gain electricity during pandemic

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WINDOW ROCK, A.Z. – Imagine a life without lights in your home, the ability to watch TV, or even microwave a snack. That’s the reality for thousands of people living on the Navajo Nation. But that’s starting to change.

Off a dirt road near Window Rock, there is a home site that has been in Mary Nez’s family for over a hundred years.

“I came with 13 siblings, we all grew in a one-room house like that, a Hogan,” said Nez.

Mary’s family have been waiting on electricity for decades.

"We do have our electricity here, now you can see my radio is going now, I don’t have to use battery radio,” said Nez.

Her life changed with a flick of a switch. Nearly 15,000 homes on the Navajo Nation didn’t have electricity before the pandemic, which brought quality of life challenges.

But ever since federal COVID relief funds from the CARES Act hit tribal bank accounts, many long-anticipated projects have gotten off the ground.

"We were doing like maybe five or ten projects every week. So maybe one or two families a day, we’re hooking up families," said Wendell Damon, Navajo Tribal Utility Authority field superintendent.

NTUA is the company is in charge of power, water and communication projects for the reservation. Damon said from September to December of last year, they powered over 700 homes. They were under a tight Dec. 31st deadline to spend federal funds on these projects.

"Before this pandemic, before the funds came, we were very slow. Customers were paying out of their own pocket to run these, but now we’re getting funded, we’re releasing projects, daily, weekly,” he said.

NTUA got $76.8 million to fund 1,764 infrastructure projects, including internet and water. All necessary to fight COVID and stay informed about the changing tide of the pandemic. Damon said it’s hard to grapple with that fact that it took a pandemic for the nation to finally get these much-needed resources.

"Some of them start crying, start hugging the guys, the line crew, start thanking us,” said Damon.

As for Nez, she said it’s bittersweet, she’s happy, she’s connected. She just wishes her parent’s could have seen this. Now, Nez is focused on the future generations.

"I’m overwhelmed because this is where my grandkids is going to be, this is where they call home, this is where they’re going to come back to,” she said.

Tribal officials said they know many families still waiting for these much-needed resources, and more federal money is coming to bring more projects.

NTUA said they’re currently accepting more applications for their "Light Up" program. Mary said many elders may need help filling out this paperwork, so it’s up to family and friends to be there for them.