January 4

As temperatures drop, central Mainers struggle to heat homes

Unprecedented demand has taxed fuel deliveries and social service agencies, leaving even those with emergencies without fuel.

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

James O’Clair had to do something.

click image to enlarge

HOME HEAT: James O’Clair, 59, of Waterville, fills a gas can with kerosene at the Big Apple on Elm Street in Waterville on Saturday. O’Clair needs the fuel at home to get him through until Monday when he can have more heating fuel delivered.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

click image to enlarge

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans WINTER HEAT: Greg French, a 15-year veteran delivery man for Dead River Oil, trudges through deep snow to make a delivery on Primrose Street in Winslow on Friday. French said it has been busier than usual compared to previous years. “We haven’t seen cold like this in a long time. Usually there is a bit of relief with a thaw. Not this year,” French said.

Additional Photos Below

Central Maine heating assistance programs

To learn more about the heating assistance programs mentioned in this article, visit:

MaineHousing at www.mainehousing.org

United Ways of Maine at 211maine.org

Kennebec Valley Community Action Program at www.kvcap.org

With an oil tank running out at home, O’Clair, 59, braved the sub-zero temperatures and drove to the Big Apple on Elm Street in Waterville to fill his 10-gallon container of kerosene.

“The place I usually get it delivered from can’t do it until Monday,” O’Clair said.

He’s not alone.

The extreme cold of the last several days has slowed fuel deliveries in central Maine, so that even a family with a documented heating emergency might have to wait as long as a week to get fuel.

And the greater than normal demand for heating fuel is not only having an impact on deliveries, but also on fuel assistance programs designed to help those who can’t afford it to heat their homes.

When a cold snap with temperatures that dropped as low as minus 20 and wind chills as low as 30 or more below zero hit central Maine the past week, it caused an explosion of phone calls to social service agencies, state offices and fuel vendors — anyone who might be able to help get a few gallons of oil into a dangerously low tank.

Kelly LaChance struggled to handle calls from the roughly 13,000 households in Kennebec, Lincoln, Sagahadoc and Somerset counties that rely on the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program for some of their heating needs.

“We can’t keep up right now,” LaChance, the organization’s energy manager, said Friday.

LaChance said the program typically deals with between eight and 10 emergency calls per day, but the recent cold snap pushed the number to as many as 30 emergency calls a day.

The office’s recorded message discouraged callers from trying to follow up on their applications for the Low Income Heating Energy Assistance Program, which disburses $37 million throughout the state.

“Due to a high volume of calls and limited staff we are unable to check the status of your LIHEAP application,” the message said. “It takes six to eight weeks to process and you will be notified by mail.”

At any given time, there were as many as 20 people on hold for one of the two workers answering calls, and wait times were sometimes as long as an hour, LaChance said.

She and her co-workers are caught in a no-win situation between the forces of supply and demand.

On the demand side are hundreds of desperate clients, many of them emotional, seeking help to keep the creeping cold at bay.

“We are getting yelled at, screamed at, sworn at,” she said. “But we can’t do any more than we’re doing.”

Frustrated by the phone wait times, some drove to the office.

“They can’t get through to us so they’re walking in our door,” she said. “We have waiting rooms full of people.”

Meanwhile, on the supply side, some fuel vendors had such tight delivery schedules that emergency situations couldn’t be addressed until next Friday, a full week after the emergencies were first documented.

“They’re not taking any new customers and no new deliveries,” LaChance said. “We can’t get any vendors to deliver.”

LaChance said she has little advice for those in need who are left with a dry fuel tank and the bitter cold.

“We have to ask them to go and buy five or 10 gallons a day until someone can get there,” she said.

John Wheeler, a representative of CN Brown, which has more than 1,000 workers in the region, said the company is dealing with the demand as quickly as it can.

“We’re not cold and uncompassionate people,” he said. “It’s just a bad situation out there.”

Demand has exploded

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans WINTER HEAT: Greg French, a 15-year veteran delivery man for Dead River Oil, trudges through deep snow to make a delivery on Primrose Street in Winslow on Friday. French said it has been busier than usual compared to previous years. “We haven’t seen cold like this in a long time. Usually there is a bit of relief with a thaw. Not this year,” French said.

  


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