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Funds freed to help Arizona counties damages by cold

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Officials on the Navajo Nation, where frigid temperatures left thousands of people without running water, said they are hopeful service can be fully restored by the end of the month.

Parts of northern Arizona experienced extreme sub-freezing temperatures caused by an arctic air mass in January. Record or near-record low temperatures significantly damaged potable water infrastructure in the area, and prompted about 2,000 reports of water shortages on the Navajo and Hopi reservations.

Gov. Jan Brewer issued an emergency declaration for the tribes Tuesday, freeing up $200,000 to help out the reservations and parts of Apache, Coconino and Navajo counties. The Arizona State Forestry Division sent two 3,000-gallon potable water tenders to the Navajo Nation with plans to provide further assistance, and others like the Salt River Project and the American Red Cross have chipped in to help.

Rex Kontz, deputy general manager of the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, said tribal officials met with representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Tuesday in their quest for a federal declaration of emergency. A provision in a law signed by President Barack Obama last month allows tribes to seek disaster aid directly from him, rather than wait on state governors to make a declaration.

Both the Navajo and Hopi tribes had declared emergencies because of the weather.

Crews on the Navajo Nation have responded to more than 940 reports of water problems across the reservation, but more than 760 reports have not yet been evaluated, Kontz said. Most of the reports that still require a response are in and around the New Mexico communities of Crownpoint and Shiprock, Navajo President Ben Shelly said.

The utility went before a Tribal Council committee on Tuesday to ask for $2.8 million in tribal funds to cover the cost of its emergency operations center and staff 15 more crews, doubling the amount of crews helping to restore water to homes.

``We just need to attack the workload,'' Kontz said. ``We can shorten the timeframe by increasing the number of people on the ground fixing things.''

Kontz said FEMA representatives indicated that the tribe has met the threshold for a federal emergency declaration, which gave tribal lawmakers comfort in knowing the tribe could be reimbursed.

The Navajo Nation has estimated the cost of responding to the water shortages at $7.5 million so far, which includes replacing or repairing water meters and water lines. Some of the work required specialized equipment to access concrete water pipes that are decades old, Kontz said.

For now, potable water tanks are being stationed across the reservation so that people without water can fill up containers as needed, he said.

The situation isn't as dire on the Hopi reservation, which is completely surrounded by the Navajo Nation.

Roger Tungovia, director of the Hopi Department of Public Safety and Emergency Services, said the tribe spent $30,000 so far responding to problems with water lines at 100 homes. The tribe has deactivated its emergency response team and is now providing supplies to residents in case problems arise as frozen pipes thaw, he said.

``Right now, I think we pretty much got a handle on everything,'' he said.

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