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In much of the United States, thousands of Native Americans are living without some basic necessities like electricity or running water. A new poll shows more than a quarter of Native Americans living in rural areas have had problems with basic infrastructure, including electricity or water or high-speed Internet, which is becoming quite basic, of course. On Navajo lands in the southwestern U.S., utility crews from around this country are now volunteering their time to install power. Laurel Morales of member station KJZZ reports.
LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: Neda Billie has been waiting to turn on lights in her home for 15 years.
NEDA BILLIE: We've been (laughter) - we've been living off those propane lanterns.
MORALES: Did you ever think this day would come?
BILLIE: Not really. Now we don't have to have flashlights everywhere. All the kids have a flashlight, so when they get up in the middle of the night, like, to use the restroom, they have a flashlight to go to and...
MORALES: To go to the outhouse.
MORALES: Billie, her husband and their five kids live in a tiny, one-room hogan, a traditional Navajo home. Their three sheep graze on sagebrush that carpets the rolling hills of Dilkon, Ariz., on the largest reservation in the country. They watch two men in a cherry picker hook up the last wire to their home. Billie says they've gone through too many generators to count.
BILLIE: My two boys, they have really bad allergies, and they have asthma. So sometimes they need the nebulizer, so we usually go to my mom's house; travel in the middle of the night over there, back and forth.
MORALES: The Billies are not alone. About 1 in 10 Navajos live without electricity, and as many as 40% of the tribe has to haul their water and use outhouses. A poll of rural Americans, conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, found more than a quarter of Native Americans have experienced problems with electricity, water and the Internet.
Northern Arizona University professor Manley Begay, who is Navajo, says the numbers are probably even higher. Begay says he recently saw something strange when he pulled into a hotel parking lot in Window Rock, the capital of the Navajo Nation. He noticed a bunch of teenagers in their cars.
MANLEY BEGAY: You could tell that they were high school students, and so they were doing their homework outside of this hotel, where...
MORALES: In the parking lot.
BEGAY: In the parking lot.
BEGAY: You know, and they had the light on in their cars and doing their homework, you know. And it became quite clear that they didn't have the Internet.
MORALES: Outside the Billie's home, the couple waits patiently for the crew to finish the job. Brian Cooper from PNM Electric has an update.
BRIAN COOPER: So we're just waiting on them to energize that one to energize your power. Can't wait to see the real smile here in a minute.
COOPER: See? Don't cover it up; I want to see it. That's what joy looks like, right?
MORALES: Cooper travelled from New Mexico, along with several other crews from around the country, volunteering their time to connect people like the Billies to the power grid. On the Navajo Nation, the homes are so spread out it costs, on average, $40,000 dollars to hook up one home to the grid. And half the tribe is unemployed, so you can't raise rates to energize all those homes. The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority and the nonprofit American Public Power Association have put a call out to utilities across the country to help.
COOPER: I had no idea that, you know, there was people still in 2019 without power.
MORALES: Finally, after waiting for so many years, the Billies watched the foreman turn on the meter behind their house and snap the cover shut. Neda then runs inside to flip the switch.
BILLIE: It's so exciting to finally have electricity here after so many years without it. My kids are going to be so happy. They keep asking every day. They go, Mom, we're going to have light. We're going to finally have light (laughter).
MORALES: Now the family will wait and pray for running water and Internet.
For NPR News, I'm Laura Morales in Flagstaff.
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