Evacuations in place as Chinle Chapter experiences extreme flooding

Flooding through the communities and along the Chinle Wash began Friday afternoon when a berm meant to hold back rising water failed. (Photo/Navajo President's Office)

Flooding through the communities and along the Chinle Wash began Friday afternoon when a berm meant to hold back rising water failed. (Photo/Navajo President's Office)

CHINLE, Ariz. — Efforts continue today to evacuate residents in the path of raging floodwaters and to reinforce dams and berms along the cascading Chinle Wash.

Dangerous flows are expected to continue this week as both Wheatfields Lake and Tsaile Lake fill with snowmelt from the surrounding Navajo Nation high country.

Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren has authorized needed resources to be available to assist Chinle Chapter and its residents being impacted by the flood that began late last week.

A Jan. 19 declaration of a state of emergency by the Navajo Nation Commission on Emergency Management remains in effect. It calls for adequate assessments, establishment of priorities, safety measures, use of resources, mitigation of threats to human life and safety, and mobilization of relief efforts.

Nygren said Saturday that should the commission consider a re-affirmation or modification of the 2023 emergency declaration, he would sign it.

“Our priority is life,” said Patrick Sandoval, chief of staff in the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President. “That's the number one priority, to make sure that everybody is safe and in the best situation that we can accommodate them with.”

“What we’re facing is overflow from the lakes upstream, Tsaile Lake and Wheatfields Lake,” Sandoval said. “Those feed into the canyon which are now producing large amounts of water.”

He said the focus has been to evacuate people by the Navajo police. The Chinle Chapter is providing shelter for families who have evacuated although people report some residents don’t want to leave their homes.

The cause of the flood, he said, stems from a long-standing issue that over a dozen years or more the Chinle Wash has filled with silt. That has resulted in much of the wash bed being at an even level with the surrounding land, causing floodwater to crest its banks.

“So when the waters begin to enter and make its way into the community, there's no stopping it,” Sandoval said.

Efforts among Apache County, Navajo Department of Transportation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs have continued over time to work on the diversion of the water to keep it out of the community, he said.

Nonetheless, he added, it's not a plan that was engineered with solid berms to withstand repeated flooding over time.

“There’s no stopping it,” he said.

Harland Cleveland, interim director of the Navajo Nation Department of Emergency Management, assured the community that informational briefings will continue and that resources are in the area now and more will be arriving today.

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Shawna Claw, who represents Chinile, said volunteers are filling sandbags at the Chinle Chapter and more residents are being asked to volunteer. Sandbags are then being loaded onto trailers and delivered to points along the wash.

“We’re asking for help from the community to provide manual labor to help where the dams have been breached,” she said. “This is just the beginning. The filling of the lakes will continue. If you’re asked to be evaluated, please move to relatives or to Chinle Chapter house.”

Delegate Claw told community members that in a disaster of this magnitude, it takes time for equipment to be brought in from various parts of Navajo Nation and assistance to be coordinated.

”We ask you to be patient,” she said. “If you do need assistance, we ask that you do contact the police department. We’re setting up a volunteer station. It would be open in daylight hours from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. We’re asking for donations of water, socks and shoes and clothing items. Please look out for one another.”

Information provided by the Office of the Navajo President.

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