Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Children Freezing to Death in Afghanistan; Adults Near Freezing to Death in Maine

Is This the Best the U. S. Can Do? Apparently So

In case anyone was not aware of it, it gets cold in Afghanistan in the winter.  Very cold.  And because war creates refugees and because refugees are frequently the most vulnerable in a society, the refugees in Afghanistan have a lot of children in their midst.  So children are freezing to death  in Afghanistan, while at the same time the U. S. is spending how many billions of dollars each month in that country?

At least 22 children have died in camps in Kabul in the past month, including 14 at the Nasaji Bagrami camp.

Of course, in the United States that sort of thing doesn’t happen.  Furthermore the 2011-12 winter has been very mild in many parts of the country, and the falling price of natural gas, which heats a large percentage of American homes either directly or through electricity generated by burning natural gas has meant that inadequate heat is not a problem in this country. 

But what happens if a person lives in an area of the country, say Maine, where the winter is not mild, the houses are old and energy inefficient with huge drafts, and no natural gas is available, so that the heating fuel of choice (because they have no other choice) is fuel oil.  In that case a part of the United States looks a lot like Afghanistan.

While federal officials try to wean the country from messy and expensive heating oil, Maine remains addicted. The housing stock is old, most communities are rural, and many residents cannot afford to switch to a cleaner heat source. 

To put a face on the problem there is this family.

Robert and Wilma Hartford settled into the porous old house, just outside of Dixfield, a few months ago, in what was the latest of many moves in their 37-year marriage. Mr. Hartford was once a stonemason who traveled from the Pacific Northwest to New England, plying his trade.

Those wandering days are gone. Mr. Hartford, 68, has a bad shoulder, Mrs. Hartford, 71, needs a wheelchair, and the two survive on $1,200 a month (“Poverty,” Mrs. Hartford says). So far this year they have received $360 in heating assistance, he said, about a quarter of last year’s allocation.

And how does a person cope with this situation, how do they keep from freezing to death.

There was no oil to burn, so the cold took up residence, beside the dog and the four cats, under the velvet painting of Jesus. The couple had no choice but to run up their electric bill. They turned on the Whirlpool stove’s burners and circulated the heat with a small fan. They ran the dryer’s hose back into the basement to keep pipes from freezing, even when there were no clothes to dry.

And, just about every day, Mr. Hartford drove to a gas station and filled up a five-gallon plastic container with $20 of kerosene. “It was the only way we had,” he said

And here is how other citizens of Maine live.

Mainers try to make do. They warm up in idling cars, then dash inside and dive under the covers. They pour a few gallons of kerosene into their oil tank and hope it lasts. And they count on others. Maybe their pastor. Maybe the delivery man. Maybe, even, a total stranger.

But wait a minute, Mitt Romney says he is not worried about the very poor because they have the safety net.  Well Mitt, the safety net for these people is just a bunch of porous holes letting in the cold.  Here is what government is doing.

As part of the drive to cut spending, the Obama administration and Congress have trimmed the energy-assistance program that helps the poor — 65,000 households in Maine alone — to pay their heating bills. Eligibility is harder now, and the average amount given here is $483, down from $804 last year, all at a time when the price of oil has risen more than 40 cents in a year, to $3.71 a gallon.

As a result, Community Concepts, a community-action program serving western Maine, receives dozens of calls a day from people seeking warmth. But Dana Stevens, its director of energy and housing, says that he has distributed so much of the money reserved for emergencies that he fears running out. This means that sometimes the agency’s hot line purposely goes unanswered.

So there you have it, the richest country in the world letting some of its people freeze for lack of government assistance for heating, and letting those people join the plight of one of the poorest countries in the world.  And we can all take pride in the fact that the bi-partisanship that Mr. Obama has been pursuing is working, at least in depriving citizens of Maine of a basic necessity.

But what about Mr. Hartford and his disabled wife slowly freezing in their home.

Two days later, Mr. Hartford drove up to Hometown Energy’s small office in his weathered gray Lincoln, walked inside, and made his desperate offer: The title to his car for some oil.

His offer stunned Janis Carlton, the only employee present. But she remembered that someone had offered, quietly, to donate 50 gallons of heating oil if an emergency case walked through the door. She called that person and explained the situation.

Her mother-in-law and office mate, Diane Carlton, answered without hesitation. Deliver the oil and I’ll pay for it, she said, which is one of the ways that Mainers make do in winter.

So if anyone is looking for true American heroes this season, try calling on the Carlton’s.  And if you were trapped in a room with other people, would you rather be trapped with Mr. Obama, Mr. Romney, Mr. Boehner, Mr. Cantor, Mr. Reid and the remaining cast of the Republican race for the Presidential nomination, or would  you rather spend the time with the Carlton’s?  Some questions answer themselves.

Hope Everyone enjoyed the Super Bowl in your cozy TV room? 

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