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Coming home to open arms

LAKESIDE-PINETOP — Today marks the eighth day since 6-year old Willa Rawlings was taken away from her family by the current of Tonto Creek. Her 5-year old brother, Colby, and her cousin Austin, also 5, succumbed to rising floodwaters after the family’s vehicle was overtaken by floodwaters at the Bar X Road crossing Friday, Nov. 29.

The Rawlings family returned home Wednesday, Dec. 4, to Pinetop-Lakeside. They were met with open arms as they entered Show Low, driving east on US60/Deuce of Clubs.

Laura Singleton/The Independent  

White Mountain residents lined the south side of US60/Deuce of Clubs and Whipple Road Wednesday, Dec. 4. They waited patiently, holding signs of love and support for the Rawlings family who returned home to Lakeside from Tonto Basin.

The highway was lined with people holding home-made signs that read, “We love you,” “Rawlings Strong” and “You are loved.” There’s no question that their return will compound their sorrow in days to come.

Last Sunday, search and rescue dogs alerted rescuers to an article of the 6-year old’s clothing and shoes, according to the Gi County Sheriff’s Office (GCSO).

GCSO has coordinated at least 11 different first responder agencies in the search for Willa. And they haven’t been alone – searching alongside them since last Friday have been hundreds of civilians from the White Mountains and all over the state.

Numerous types of equipment were used in the search, including backhoes, excavators, airboats, helicopters, divers, drones and even a high-tech underwater sonar apparatus called “Emily.”

Water levels in the creek have reportedly dropped, rendering boats ineffective so volunteers walk the creek banks and wade in the water when possible.

Tonto Creek is also described as having a good deal of debris, brush, branches and thick vegetation along the banks which makes access difficult. Rain and snowmelt also make the river unpredictable.

After so many days of searching, efforts have focused on recovery of the child’s body. It is devastating to know that there are slim chances of her surviving the water. The elements and the passing of time has turned the search and rescue effort to one of recovery.

“We would love to keep this hopeful, but because of the circumstances we are considering it a search and recovery’’ said Gila County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Virgil Dodd, according to a report published by the Arizona Republic on Thursday.

Standing together

But there is a shining light amongst the collective pain felt in the community.

A renewed sense of compassion and empathy has been officially described as “One community standing together in support of the Rawlings family.”

It began with a Dec. 2 letter to “residents of the White Mountains Community,” from Pinetop-Lakeside Mayor Stephanie Irwin. The letter states simply: “There is an effort to show support for the families and to unite all White Mountains communities in honoring the children who were taken from us.”

Other community leaders have begun sharing the message through meetings, letters and heartfelt conversations.

“It is really something special to see people doing all that they can do to help someone else and to offer prayers and offer comfort,” said Show Low Mayor Daryl Seymore during Tuesday’s council meeting. “May we bring the Rawlings family comfort, guidance and love. And thank you to all of the citizens who have spent days helping search and rendering aid in the search for Willa.”

Local schools are also deeply affected by the situation and have posted ribbons and signs along the roads and highways with their school colors. Businesses and residents have done the same.

“In times of tragedy, strong communities like Pinetop-Lakeside and Show Low rush to the assistance of those in need,” says Blue Ridge Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Michael L. Wright. “Sadly, the unimaginable loss of the Rawlings family is a perfect example. In times of trouble, our schools and towns combine our resources and faith in hope of reducing some of the pain and suffering.”

“It has been heartwarming to experience people coming together as one, unified in their love, and desire to serve and support a faith-filled family during their extremity of heartbreak and profound grief,” adds Wright. “The Blue Ridge family will continue to keep the Rawlings and their extended family members in our thoughts and prayers.”

Finally, Irwin’s letter offers a reminder to all residents and visitors to Arizona’s beautiful White Mountains to “respect the power of nature and to be safe in your travels.”

Soon after Irwin’s letter published, the Navajo County Board of Supervisors, the town of Pinetop-Lakeside and the White Mountain Apache Tribe issued a joint letter of support inviting the public to join them Friday, Dec. 6, in a community day of prayer. “We ask that you join us in offering our support on behalf of the Rawlings, by setting aside a moment of prayer for their family,” states the letter.

The town of Springerville/Eagar followed suit, issuing a similar letter “in the spirit of love and support.”

Sunrise Park Resort also invite the public to join them this weekend, Dec. 6-8, as they “honor the lives of the Rawlings family” at their Crown Dancer Cafe.

A special tribute to the Rawlings family will also take place during the Town of Pinetop-Lakeside’s tree lighting scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 6, in Jack Barker Memorial Park.

“Thank you to all the volunteers and first-responders who have dedicated so much for our family!,” writes the Rawlings family on the GoFundMe page titled Rawlings Family Tonto Basin Accident. “And a special thanks to the community for prayers, donations and kindness. Please know that your love is truly felt.”

Numerous other fundraising events are being organized throughout the White Mountain Community. And, several GoFundMe accounts have been established to assist the extended family members with funeral expenses.

Photo courtesy of Ashlee Merrill  

Meren Hoejs portrays Sugar Plum and Joseph Swovick as the Prince perform in Nutcracker Ballet Dec. 14, for 1 p.m. matinee and also at 7 p.m. at the Show Low High School Auditorium. Horejs studied this past summer at Ballet White Mountains Summer Intensive. Swovick is assistant instructor for the Accelerated Ballet program at Ballet White Mountains. Tickets are $20/family and $10/single and can be purchased at the Show Low and Pinetop-Lakeside chambers or online at tututix.com/balletwhitemountains/

Remembering Pearl Harbor

December 7, 2019, marks the 78th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. This was a pivotal day in world history, ultimately leading the United States to enter the Second World War.

Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan participated in a series of invasions into China, believing the only way to solve its economic and demographic problems was to expand into China and take over its import market. This attitude helped create rising tension with the United States, and American officials ultimately responded with economic sanctions and trade embargoes. Although it seemed war was inevitable, the Japanese preempted the American military with a surprise attack targeting Pearl Harbor, which is 2,000 miles from the U.S. mainland and 4,000 miles from Japan.

Pearl Harbor is a U.S. naval base located near Honolulu, HI. On Sunday, December 7, 1941, just before 8 a.m. local time, Japanese fighter planes descended on the base in a surprise attack. Five additional attacks followed throughout the day. The Japanese managed to destroy nearly 20 American naval vessels, which included eight battleships, and more than 300 airplanes. While the military equipment could ultimately be replaced, the more than 2,400 military personnel and civilians who died paid the ultimate price.

It is believed the United States was especially surprised by the attack, as American military leaders felt, if an attack were to take place, it would come from the sea rather than the air. In addition, American intelligence officials were confident that any Japanese attack would take place in one of the European colonies in the South Pacific, such as Singapore or Indochina, which are closer to Japan than Hawaii.

Despite devastating Pearl Harbor, all hopes were not lost that day, and the Japanese could not cripple America’s Pacific Fleet. Aircraft carriers were not docked at the base, and the key onshore oil storage, shipyards, repair shops, and docks were left largely intact. From a functional standpoint, the U.S. Navy was able to quickly rebound. However, even 78 years later, the residual emotional effects of the attack continue, particularly among WWII veterans, as well as the family members of those who perished.

Eagar neighborhood rezoning request denied

EAGAR — A tabled issue from November’s town council meeting reemerged for a vote at the Dec. 2 meeting regarding the request for rezoning in the Hillcrest subdivision of Eagar. The request was brought to the council by Chris Compton and six of his neighbors after the rezoning petition was denied due to a 2-2 tie vote in a Planning and Zoning meeting. The request, to rezone the subdivision from an R1-10 to an R1-10R, would have had the effect of barring “tiny homes” and manufactured homes from being installed onto lots in the neighborhood. Jeremiah Loyd, the Planning and Zoning administrator for the town of Eagar, made a short presentation on the issue prior to the council’s vote on the request.

“Of note, manufactured homes are either already installed or the lot owner plans on utilizing their lot for this purpose,” Loyd said, listing off five lot numbers from the Hillcrest subdivision where the owners have expressed interest in placing a manufactured home currently or in the future. Within Hillcrest, there is already a manufactured home located at 193 North Hillcrest Drive, and it has been present in the neighborhood since at least 2007 according to public sale records.

“The Hillcrest subdivision is located in an area that’s identified as ‘In-town’ in the General Plan,” Loyd said. “The highest densities in Eagar are found in areas that allow manufactured homes, as identified in the General Plan. Although manufactured home areas ‘constitute less than 4% of all homes, they are more than 30% of the housing stock, indicating that these uses are at substantially higher densities than single-family homes.’”

The Town of Eagar General Plan, which was adopted in 2014, provides an overall plan for the town’s growth and development and, in accordance with state law, therefore guides all “land use and zoning decisions.” One of the objectives within the plan is to “Encourage a range of residential land use densities and commercial intensities within Eagar,” and a main objective to achieving this goal is “encouraging higher density land uses adjacent to the town core.” The Hillcrest subdivision falls well within the area marked on the General Plan map as “in-town” meaning the area closest to the town core that is not planned for commercial activities. This is the area that the General Plan would like to see higher density residential areas develop.

“My recommendation is the Hillcrest subdivision rezoning quest from R1-10 to R1-10R does not fall in line with the General Plan,” Loyd said to the council. “Further, it does not appear that manufactured homes are prohibited by the CC&Rs of the subdivision and the applicant did not receive the recommendation for approval by the planning and zoning commission. Therefore, the zoning request should be categorically denied.”

There was no discussion by the town council after Loyd’s presentation and the issue went straight to a vote. Councilman Reece Hadlock was not present at the meeting, and one member, Debra Seely, recused herself from the vote since she was a member of the planning and zoning commission before joining the Eagar town council in September of this year. The vote of the remaining members was unanimous in striking down the request for rezoning.

Amber Shepard is an local journalist covering municipal governments and other Apache County topics.

Part 1 of 2
Getting AHCCCS could get tougher

NAVAJO & APACHE COUNTIES — After years of decline, the percentage of Arizonans without medical insurance has started to rise again.

That’s bad news for Navajo and Apache counties, where half of the residents in each county rely on this state’s version of Medicaid – the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS). That works out to nearly 100,000 people.

But that’s nothing compared to the bad news that may await – if a lawsuit by states supported by the federal Justice Department finally manages to kill the Affordable Care Act. The Trump Administration has called repeatedly for the repeal of the ACA and in a rare move declined to defend the federal law from a legal challenge.

A federal appeals court has already heard arguments in the lawsuit that claims the way Congress enacted the Affordable Care Act violated the Constitution. If the lawsuit succeeds, some 600,000 Arizonans could lose their healthcare. That includes both people who have obtained insurance through the ACA exchanges and people who gained coverage through the federally-funded expansion of AHCCCS.

The case comes in the midst of the latest open enrollment period to sign up for an insurance plan through the ACA exchanges – which runs until Dec. 15.

Currently, Arizona ranks 41st nationally in the share of the population without health insurance. About 8 percent of children and 11 percent of adults lack insurance. That’s still an overall decline of 6 percent in the ranks of the uninsured in Arizona since 2010. The Arizona legislature narrowly voted to accept federal funding to expand eligibility for AHCCCS to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. That’s about $45,000 annually for a family of six or $16,000 for a single person.

The uninsured rate has risen as Congress has chipped away at the provisions of the ACA. Congress has eliminated a penalty for not having insurance, which previously provided money for subsidies and gave people an incentive to buy insurance. The state legislature has also imposed a work requirement and a five-year, lifetime limit on receiving benefits – which could further reduce coverage by AHCCCS. This year, Congress allowed the sale of “short term” plans that don’t meet the full requirements of regular ACA coverage. Companies have begun to market the cut-rate plans to healthy people, which could leave only people with medical issues on the full-coverage plans, driving up rates.

National studies show that the expansion of Medicaid programs like AHCCCS have saved lives. One national study concluded that gaining Medicaid coverage for 55-to-64 year-olds reduced deaths over a 16-month period by about 2 percent – which amounted to a 70 percent decline in the expected death rate. Extrapolating, research said the states that didn’t expand their Medicaid programs likely suffered an extra 16,000 deaths. Arizona expanded AHCCCS, but state law will revoke the expansion if federal funding for the added population falls below 95 percent.

Having medical insurance also dramatically reduces financial stress, since medical bills remain the number-one reason for bankruptcies. The lack of medical care hits rural areas hardest. Studies suggest a third of people who do have insurance in rural areas put off or skip medical care because they can’t find a doctor and don’t have the time or money to travel to find one.

Apache and Navajo county residents remain heavily dependent on AHCCCS

In Navajo County, 53,000 of the 106,000 residents rely on AHCCCS for healthcare. Many more rely on health coverage through the Affordable Care Act exchanges, which this year have been stripped of money for marketing and “navigators” to help people choose a plan. Meanwhile, the AHCCCS work requirement have just taken effect – so the impact on coverage levels isn’t clear yet.

Nonetheless, an additional 2,000 Navajo County residents signed up for AHCCCS coverage this year, a 4 percent increase. That matches Pinal County for the biggest percentage jump in the state.

In Apache County, 38,000 of the 72,000 residents rely on AHCCCS for their care. However, the number of residents covered has dropped by 1,100 — a 3 percent decline this year. That’s the biggest percentage decrease in the state.

Nonetheless, 53 percent of Apache County residents rely on AHCCCS compared to about 48 percent of Navajo County residents. Reservation residents can qualify for care both through Indian Health Services and AHCCCS.

Statewide, 28 percent of residents rely on AHCCCS. The total AHCCCS enrollment statewide this year rose 2 percent, to nearly 2 million. The high poverty rate in rural Apache and Navajo counties accounts for the heavy dependence on AHCCCS. The poverty rate in Apache County is 36 percent and in Navajo County it’s 29 percent. That compares to a poverty rate of 17 percent statewide and 15 percent nationally.

AHCCCS has grown steadily since its launch in 1985 from 600,000 enrollees in 2000 to 1.9 million in 2016.

The federal government provides 75 percent of the funding, the state’s general fund about 16 percent and the counties about 3 percent.

Children account for 44 percent of those covered, adults under age 64 for about 50 percent. Adults older than 64 make up about 6 percent, mostly the impoverished disabled cared for in nursing homes.

The state’s AHCCCS program relies on a managed care model and has long been lauded as one of the most cost-effective Medicaid programs in the country. The program’s enrollment has soared since 2012 – rising from about 1.3 million to 1.9 million, but the federal government has borne almost the total cost of the increase. State general fund money going into the program has remained steady at about $1.2 billion since 2013.

Despite the recent increases in AHCCCS enrollment for most counties, the program faces an uncertain future – which is worrisome in rural counties like Apache and Navajo.

Part 2 of the story will publish in Tuesday’s Independent and will address the lawsuit seeking to overturn the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com