AUGUSTA — The double whammy of frigid temperatures and ice-covered driveways and roads is straining the ability of those who deliver fuel and those who provide money for to help pay for it to keep up with demand.
Fuel deliveries can take a week or more because companies have been backed up with calls since an ice storm knocked out power and left central Maine roads and driveways covered in treacherous ice.
Friday, a group of Augusta area leaders who meet regularly to talk about how to meet the heating needs of low-income residents, focused on the stress the last few weeks have caused area residents and the companies and agencies who serve them.
“The dealers have all been backed up since the ice storm,” Jim Randall, who works for Augusta Fuel Company and is on the board of directors of the Kennebec Valley United Way, told the gathering. “There’s no time to catch up. You can only do so many deliveries a day. And driveway and road conditions are so bad it slows drivers down. Some driveways are impassable.”
The lack of prompt fuel deliveries makes it hard for agencies such as Kennebec Valley Community Action Program to get emergency fuel delivered to people whose oil tanks are about to run out. The agency distributes federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program funds in Kennebec, Somerset, Sagadahoc and Lincoln counties.
Kelly LaChance, who oversees the agency’s distribution of fuel assistance money, said Friday federal rules require emergency fuel money to be delivered to eligible clients within 24 hours. But with the demand for fuel deliveries so high, she hasn’t been able to find companies that can meet that requirement. She said some are backed up two weeks, and many aren’t taking new customers because they’re so busy keeping up with deliveries to established customers.
“We’re getting between 15 and 40 (requests for emergency fuel money) a day, we just can’t keep up,” LaChance said. “And I can’t get fuel companies to deliver within 24 hours.”
LaChance said people have to be patient, though she understands it is difficult for people to be patient if they’re cold or about to run out of fuel.
She said people can buy kerosene at gas station to keep a furnace going, filling five gallon containers to keep the heat running until an emergency delivery can be made.
She said that LIHEAP money, both the standard, one-time regular assistance of just more than $500, and one-time emergency money of up to $400, are meant to be supplemental. Residents must find other means to pay for the bulk of their heating needs.
Donna Staples, General Assistance coordinator for the town of Winthrop, said people should start saving to buy heating fuel in the summer, and take as much responsibility for themselves as possible.
Rob Gordon, executive director of the Kennebec Valley United Way, said the extreme and repeated cold temperatures are creating stress, both in low income people in need of help to stay warm, and in those trying to provide that help.
“The holiday period was very stressful,” Gordon said. “Financial resources, vendor resources, are stretched.”
He praised the city of Augusta for opening an emergency shelter at the Augusta Civic Center during the ice storm, when power was lost in much of the city, including at the Bread of Life shelter.
The Emergency Heating Assistance Group includes about a dozen people representing nonprofits, municipalities, social service agencies, an oil dealer and others. The group meets monthly throughout the heating season to compare notes and share ideas about how to make sure low-income residents can heat their homes.
Dan Chapman and his partner Angie Anderson, who operate Chapman Oil Company in Gardiner, did not attend Friday’s meeting, but said Thursday the business gets several requests a day to deliver only a minimal amount of oil to keep houses from freezing.
However, officials said that will likely result in even more demand for oil deliveries, because customers who only get a minimal amount will run out of oil, and need more, sooner.
Group members said Friday Citizens Energy Joe for Oil program, which has previously provided fuel assistance, is not yet active.
Randall warned an online application purports to be for the program but isn’t. He said the application asks people to submit $30 with their application. Linda Ryan, credit manager for Augusta Fuel Company, said Joe for Oil applications, if and when the program becomes active, are done over the phone, not online.
Gordon said the Augusta Warming Center has been busy with the cold weather, with as many as 47 people coming to the shelter in downtown Augusta at 44 Front St.
“We’ve had families with young children in there every day,” Gordon said of the warming center, which is free and also has some winter clothing available for people who need it. “The warming center is probably more important this year than any year we’ve been doing it.”
LaChance said her agency only has funding to pay two employees to answer phone requests for fuel assistance, so callers seeking assistance or information should expect delays. She said some can be on hold for two hours. She said frustrated callers sometimes hang up and call the governor’s office or their legislators’ offices to complain and seek assistance, and officials from those offices then call KVCAP, seeking to speed up the process for that caller. LaChance said, however, that doesn’t get that caller to the head of the line and they still have to wait with others seeking assistance.
She said the agency has filled about 8,000 requests for assistance so far and has another 1,500 applications pending.
“We’re getting (emergency assistance) out the door as fast as we can,” she said.
Keith Edwards – firstname.lastname@example.org