Writing and Reporting by Jake Brown
Imagine waking up every day with a 110-degree heat index. Now, imagine being an elderly senior living on Social Security who can only afford to run your air conditioner for a few minutes at a time in order to have enough money leftover to eat or pay for medications. The threat of a heat-related death hangs over millions of American homes, and, sadly, the weather has already claimed multiple victims this summer alone. Fox News reported in June that “at least four deaths have been attributed to the sweltering heat that has plagued Arizona…The blistering heat broke records across the state…”
Tragically, the Maricopa County Public Health department confirmed among those fatalities was an elderly woman, prompting Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, medical director for the Disease Control Division at Maricopa County Department of Public Health, to caution that “this is a sad reminder about how seriously we need to take our heat here in the desert.” Others fighting on the front lines of the war to battle back heat-related death and health threats among vulnerable demographics like the elderly, single-parent homes, and working poor are LIHEAP advocates across the state like Tammy Frazee, Program Manager of the Department of Economic Security’s Division of Aging and Adult Services, which administers the state’s LIHEAP program. Frazee, in conjunction with the department’s Public Information Officer Connie Webb, underscored the continuing peril of exposure to heat-related fatalities with her report that “the need is greater than the funds received, so losing any funds would only decrease the state’s, in conjunction with the CAA’s, ability to service those in need. This is not an opinion, but rather reality.”
Doubling down on the Frazee’s call for more funding, driven in part by what she explains is Arizona’s unique position among the 50 states as one that “runs a year round program,” colleague and longtime leading LIHEAP advocate Cynthia Zwick, Director of the Arizona Community Action Association (ACAA), commented that ACAA is “working 12 months a year trying to serve as many families as we can. It just seems unfair that we’re not getting the proportion of the funding that was intended through the evolution of the funding formula. With all the Appropriation language tweaks about how the money actually gets distributed, we often wind up on the short end. In the summer months, when we don’t have enough money, we have seen deaths occur. You’ve heard the statistic that more low-income families die of heat-related deaths than cold-related deaths, and that’s not something we like to talk about because it’s painful, but it’s the reality. To the extent that this program is available, that is much less likely to happen, and I would argue that LIHEAP has saved lives.”
Matthew Roach, ADHS Climate & Health Program manager, noted that “high temperatures start early in Arizona,” a reality that has been “linked to an average of 118 deaths every year since 2000,” according to the University Arizona State University’s 2014 study. Meanwhile, retired Republican U.S. Senator Jon Kyl commented in 2015 to the Associated Press on the life-threatening consequences of LIHEAP funding: “LIHEAP spending tends to be front-ended, with the money being used up in the winter months so nothing is left when the temperatures in Arizona climb over 100 degrees.”
The Governor’s Office and legislature are a major source of support, with their present focus on battling back the utility bills that climb beyond affordability of the state’s most unprotected households. Frazee noted the offices “have always been supportive of the LIHEAP program and have provided Arizona taxpayers the option to donate to LIHEAP efforts on their income tax returns. The program Neighbors Helping Neighbors typically collects tens of thousands of dollars.” Along with the taxpayers’ generosity, CAAs supplement Arizona’s efforts to help the maximum number of households in need of relief. “The state contracts with 12 CAAs to deliver the full scope of the LIHEAP services, beginning with intake all the way through to the payment being received by the utility vendor,” Frazee noted.
Zwick has an ally in the state’s major utilities, which go above and beyond to help exposed households. “The two major electric companies, Salt River Project and Arizona Public Service, have policies that once it gets over 100 degrees in the summer, an internal moratorium goes into effect whereby the utilities will not cut off service,” Zwick said.
“Arizona has a good working relationship with our utility vendors,” Frazee said. “The largest utility companies in Arizona (AZ Public Service, Salt River Project and Southwest Gas) all have implemented moratoriums during extreme heat and cold, which prohibit utility shut-offs.” Speaking on behalf of the utilities, Larry Lucero, Tucson Electric Power’s Senior Director of Government Relation & Economic Development, underscored that along with his industry’s internal efforts, “with LIHEAP dollars, we are able to keep customers connected, saving the costs of disconnecting and reconnecting. The cost benefit is very positive.”
Weatherization has played a continually and consistently important role in helping LIHEAP-recipient households look toward the longer-term of protecting their homes from becoming a danger by linking the two partners in energy efficiency. “Weatherization is part of the LIHEAP application process in Arizona,” Frazee said. “If a household receives LIHEAP, it is eligible for weatherization assistance also.”
Contract partners have become among the most vibrant examples of advocacy in action. The partnerships make a difference in the lives of thousands of households across the nation’s hottest state in every demographic, as the Navajo-Hopi Observer spotlighted recently with their report that the “Red Feather Development Group – a non-profit organization that serves American Indians in Arizona and Montana and is dedicated to ensuring safe and healthy homes for all American Indians – (was)…offering free two-day weatherization workshops for people on the Hopi and Navajo reservations.” Education Director John Marian said Red Feather encounters everything from traditional rock built homes to more modern stick or cinder block homes, to Housing and Urban Development homes on Hopi and then Navajo hogans either done in lumber or cinder and other traditional material. The result of weatherization is reduced utility bills. The two weatherization measures that generate the most energy savings are air sealing and adding insulation. These are largely invisible and much of the work can be completed by any homeowner.”