COPPERMINE, Arizona— After a recent snowstorm, thousands of Utahns faced the frustration of living without electricity for a few hours. But imagine living like that all the time, all your life.
That happens to be the case for about 60,000 people near the Utah-Arizona border. Now, utility crews from Utah are volunteering to help out.
“I do feel a pretty big sense of pride, coming down here and helping these guys out, sharing my skill with them and bettering their lives,” said Brad Fryer, of Heber (Utah) Light & Power.
The people in question live on the Navajo Nation, typically in isolated homes scattered across the vast reservation. Utility trucks from Heber City had a daunting experience just getting there over many miles of bad road. Deep sand in the Navajo Nation forced them to stop several times.
Eventually they made it to the home of Sid Wall, a relatively new and modern structure that has never been connected to the electrical grid that nearly all Americans take for granted. His daughter grew up without electricity.
“It’s been a long wait,” Shelby Wall said. “So I’m now 21, and it’s been 21 years.”
For her mother, Marlene Yazzie, it’s been much longer. “It’s been like, how old am I now? 48? Hah, hah, that many years.”
Heber City and 23 other cities across the country are sending utility crews to finally provide electrical connections for isolated Navajo homes. Typically, such a project can be prohibitively expensive because power lines are often quite distant from homes.
“It can cost up to $40,000 for one electric hookup connection to a home, up to a mile away,” said Deenise Becenti of the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority.
But under a program called Light Up Navajo, the visiting utility crews are doing their work for free, donating their efforts and expertise to the Navajo Nation.
“Yeah, we’re grateful,” Becenti said, “that the cities across America have sent their teams here to help our families who have been waiting so long to get electricity to their homes.”
The volunteer effort was organized by the American Public Power Association. Crews from as far away as Massachusetts have already visited. Utility workers from several municipalities in the Salt Lake area will be heading to the Navajo Nation early next month to join the project. Over the next few weeks the goal is to hook up 300 homes, giving more than a thousand people an electrical connection for the first time in their lives.
Sid Wall’s home has a solar panel but it doesn’t generate enough power for a house full of modern appliances. It’s apparently a family of optimists, though. They have long had a microwave oven and a ceiling fan with lights and they’ve had a refrigerator for two years. But it usually remains dark and warm on the inside. They still use ice-chests to keep food cold and a propane camp stove for their cooking.
For Sid Wall, electricity is literally a matter of life and death. He requires regular sessions of kidney dialysis to stay alive.
“We don’t do it here,” Marlene Yazzie said. “It requires electricity and running water.”
So the couple regularly drives to their daughter’s home in Nevada, a round trip that covers hundreds of miles.
“We do it, like, three or four times a week,” Yazzie said.
When the volunteer effort was first organized, the utility workers from Heber City were surprised to learn that 60,000 Navajos are without electrical hookups.
“Yeah, I was blown away,” Fryer said. “That’s a pretty big number.”
His colleague, Braiden Despain, echoed the thought.
“It was definitely — for this day and age — it was very surprising,” Despain said. “I was very taken aback.”
Despain says he volunteered mainly to have a new experience, but the humanitarian aspect also appealed to him.
“It sounded pretty cool to come help some people out,” Despain said, “so it’s a win-win.”
Even when the power is switched on, though, Sid Wall will continue going to Nevada for dialysis. That’s because his home still doesn’t have running water.