ROCHELLE – Living in the United States of America most people take electricity and power in their homes for granted. But many people in the U.S. still live day to day without access to electricity.
This was the case for 15,000 individuals on the Navajo Nation Indian Reservation that spreads across Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, but thanks to the work of some dedicated Rochelle Municipal Utilities staff members those numbers are being reduced.
In an effort to bring electricity to many homes that have never had power before, the City of Rochelle launched the #LightupNavajo initiative. The Navajo reservation, which is home to roughly 350,000 individuals, makes up 75 percent of the people in the U.S. living without power.
Jason Bird, superintendent of electric operations for Rochelle Municipal Utilities, explains how a speech given by a close friend and Navajo tribe member at the national conference really shed light on the need to help.
“The city manager and I were at the national conference in 2018 and Walter Haase, CEO of the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, got up and gave a speech,” Bird said. “I have known Wally for 25 plus years and you could see the pain in his face and his heart that his custumers were suffering.”
After attending the conference Bird brought the plan up to the city council and it was approved in December of 2018. The plan was to send four workers out to the Navajo reservation from March 22 through April 20 to install electrical poles and lines to bring power to as many families as possible.
“We set approximately 110 poles, built 7 and a half miles of line and hooked up 25 customers to power for the first time in their life,” explained Bird.
Receiving power for the first time was very emotional for many of the individuals on the reservation. Some of the families had been fighting for 40 years or more to get power, but could not afford it. According to Bird, one man on the reservation had been asking for power most of his life, but sadly he passed away a month before the workers arrived. He was unable to see the power being installed, but his daughter witnessed it and was overwhelmed with emotion.
The workers on the reservation said it was an eye-opening experience to visit such a different environment, but felt great being able to change the lives of so many.
“It makes me feel good to have the ability and the opportunity to change somebody’s life, I think it is a big deal,” exclaimed Todd Johnson, a Rochelle Municipal Utilities lineman.
The cost of bringing power to a home is approximately $40,000, costing the property owner approximately $10,000. Through funding from the #lightupNavajo project, workers were able to bring power to the homes of families at no cost to them. During their time on the reservation, workers would work seven days a week, up to 16 hours a day. The citizens of the reservation were very appreciative of all the work and showed it by providing dinners each week to the workers.
“They all treated you like family, the most welcoming, polite people that I have ever dealt with,” said Johnson.
During the four weeks spent toiling on the reservation the workers missed their families more than anything else. But when asked if they would do it again, the answer was a definite ‘yes.’ Being a municipal worker means answering the call and turning the lights on wherever that may be.
“As a public utility, my philosophy has always been it is part of our responsibility to turn the lights on wherever it’s needed,” said Bird. “When a sister utility needs some help, and we were able to send help out there, that is the right thing to do.”