Navajos hone preparation

When disaster strikes the Navajo Indian Nation, alerting the population and organizing response can be challenging.

BY HEATHER MOYER | BALTIMORE | March 21, 2005



"There are significant communication and terrain challenges there."

—David Baxa


When disaster strikes the Navajo Indian Nation, alerting the population and organizing response can be challenging due the nation’s size.

“The Navajo Nation is the size of West Virginia,” said Glenda Davis, program manager for the Navajo Nation Veterinary Program.

“It spans from Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. We have lots of unique issues – we deal with three states, 12 counties. Addressing emergency response through 12 counties is very difficult – and going through three states is even harder on top of that.”

The lack of proper technology for communication across the area is also a significant challenge. Yet the Navajo Nation is now moving toward setting up a specialized disaster information system with the help of the Global Disaster Information Network (GDIN). GDIN is a non-profit coalition comprised of international professionals and organizations with an interest in disaster information.

Last March, GDIN announced a plan to create a disaster information network designed and managed by American Indians. The network would be made up of offices across Native American land aimed at helping alert the various tribes about disasters and recovery information.

Davis sits on the Navajo Nation Emergency Management Committee now enacting the one part of the network within their own nation. She said the information network was an idea her nation could not ignore. “We’d never thought of something this high-tech – you’re looking at a tribal entity that’s pretty much looked at as a third world country,” she noted.

Raising awareness about disaster information challenges within certain communities is the key of GDIN’s plan, said David Baxa. “We want to prototype and pilot this program on Indian land because they’re an example of an underserved population in disasters,” explained Baxa, a member of GDIN’s executive committee.

“There are significant communication and terrain challenges there.”

He added that after seeing the horrible aftermath of the tsunami in southern Asia, he wonders how an alert system like the one GDIN is proposing could have helped.

Baxa added that active participants in the Native American network thus far have included the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Congress of American Indians.

The Navajo Nation contends with many different disasters, including wildfires, floods, and disease outbreaks among both humans and animals. Davis, a veterinarian, sits on the emergency management committee because of the importance of farming to the nation. “Livestock are critical for our people and so response in the animal world is important to us.”

The committee is now made up of 13 people, including the police chief, fire chief, various health workers, veterinarians, and other emergency officials. Davis said the committee has held presentations around the nation to get more people on-board with the idea.

They are also working with members of the Pueblo Nation, another tribe that is looking to establish one of the network’s “nodes” within its territory.

Davis said the process thus far has been very enlightening for all involved. “We’ve done an assessment of our nation and we know what our shortfalls are, we know what needs to be addressed. We’ve opened up everyone’s eyes.”

Herman Shorty, chair of the Navajo Nation Emergency Management Committee, agreed. “As we become more knowledgeable of the hazards out there and identify them, we’re recognizing the need of partnership with neighboring responders,” explained Shorty, who also directs the Navajo Nation Office of Environmental Health.

“Whether it’s natural or biological, (disasters) know no boundaries or color – we need to stand unified.”

The next step for the Navajo Nation’s network office is raising funds – an issue which Baxa said GDIN is solidly focused on at this point.


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Related Links:

Global Disaster Information Network

The Navajo Nation

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