A Frozen Katrina

By Katrina vanden Heuvel

August 13, 2008, The Nation


As John McCain and the Republicans trumpet their election
year boldfaced lie - drill now so we can lower prices at the
pump today - they continue to ignore a looming energy
disaster with lives hanging in the balance.

Currently, eight million homes rely on heating oil during the
winter months, and last winter's prices forced too many
citizens to choose between heat, food, and medicine.

According to the New York Times, heating oil prices are now
36 percent higher than they were last winter and bills will
be up to $1500 higher than they were last year. As for the 54
million households heating with natural gas, prices are
expected to be 67 percent higher this winter. Current funding
for the Low Income Heating Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
is below 1980's levels -'a time when fuel prices were just a
tiny fraction of what they are now,' The Timberjay newspapers
point out. In fact, last year's $2.5 billion in LIHEAP
funding allowed just 16 percent of eligible recipients to
receive aid. Congressional representatives of New England
states have sought as much as $6.5 billion in additional
LIHEAP funding to meet the anticipated needs of the upcoming
winter. With both lower-income and middle-class people now
unable to afford this basic necessity - a requirement for
security in one's own home - newspapers in the Northeast are
sounding a clarion call to head-off the impending disaster.

As the Boston Globe wrote in an editorial this month:

The country had a few days to prepare for Hurricane Katrina,
and failed. It has more than three months to prepare for this
frozen Katrina, and there will be no excuse this time.... A
frozen Katrina will be measured in hypothermia cases and
malnutrition or unfilled prescriptions if the poor are forced
to spend grocery or medicine money on fuel.

'It could be New England's own Katrina disaster,' read a
Stowe Reporter editorial. 'Hundreds of homes rendered
uninhabitable, families' finances stretched to the limit,
some driven away altogether to take shelter with friends or
family. But unlike Katrina, this calamity is clearly visible
on the horizon and we have months to prepare.'

The Rutland Herald warned of service-providers who are
already stretched thin:

No one wants to see refugees from the cold breaking into
stores or second homes to spend the night, but there will be
desperate people that the state's social service providers
will be challenged to help, since most homeless shelters are
full at present and may not be able to house any more people
in upcoming months.

And, finally, from the Concord Monitor :

It will be interesting to see if the prospect of masses of
New Hampshire citizens freezing at home gets the attention it
so clearly deserves.

Indeed, the crisis has gotten the attention of Democrats -
and some Republicans - in Congress, but an effort to respond
was thwarted by yet another GOP Senate filibuster. Senator
Bernie Sanders (I-VT) tried to increase LIHEAP funding all
the way back in November, while President Bush proposed
cutting it by $379 million. In March, Sen. Sanders offered a
budget amendment that would have rescinded the Bush tax cuts
for the wealthiest three-tenths of 1 percent of taxpayers and
increased LIHEAP funding by $4 billion. Last month, he was
the lead sponsor of the Warm in the Winter and Cool in the
Summer Act which would double LIHEAP funding, adding $2.5
billion to the program (less than one week's funding in
Iraq). Although President Bush threatened a veto (no surprise
there, he has also proposed cutting the weatherization
program that helps lower-income families reduce energy
consumption over the long-term), there were fifty-two co-
sponsors, including thirteen Republicans. Sanders called it a
'tripartisan bill' with the majority of Congress, the
nation's governors, AARP and others on board.

'People in the north understand that it would be inhumane to
stand by while seniors freeze to death this winter or kids
get sick,' he said 'People in hot-weather states know heat
waves can be killers.' In a floor speech, Sanders cited
Center for Disease Control statistics to further illustrate
the urgency of this legislation:

Historically, from 1979 to 2003, excessive heat exposure
caused 8,015 deaths in the United States. During this period,
more people in this country died from extreme heat than from
hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes
combined.. During 1979 to 2002, a total of 16,555 deaths in
the United States, an average of 689 per year were attributed
to exposure to excessive natural cold.

But when it came time to vote on the legislation on July 26,
there were only fifty votes to end a Republican filibuster-
ten shy of the sixty needed to bring the bill to the floor
for a vote. The GOP wanted 'a vote on legislation that would
open up the continental shelf to oil drilling.'

'I understand the games that are played in Washington, but it
doesn't make the obstruction tactics any less revolting,'
Sanders said following the vote. 'This is life or death.
People are dying in the summer heat. People will freeze to
death this winter.'

While Republicans continue to push drilling as their election
year elixir, real pain, real lives, and real security are

[Katrina vanden Heuvel has been The Nation's editor since
1995 and publisher since 2005.]

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