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Cold Crisis: Neighbors Help Neighbors and Local Agencies Assist Those in Need in This Frigid Winter Weather

by Madison V. Fisler


Jan. 24, 2014. The recent cold snap in the High Country caught many people by surprise with bitter cold temperatures, even colder wind chills and high winds all across the region, and the winter weather doesn’t appear to be going anywhere soon.

Two Sides of the Coin: High Country Residents Choose Between Burst Pipes and Heating Their Homes

Because of the cold temperatures, many High Country residents are being advised to keep their heaters running in order to avoid freezing pipes and to take further precautions to protect themselves from other home damage that can arise out of the frigid weather. According to research from the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS), “a burst pipe can cost more than $5,000 in water damage.”

On one side of the coin, many pipes remain unfrozen and water damages are being minimized, but on the other side, many High Country residents are seeing significant spikes in their home energy bills and the price tag of energy does not come cheap. 

The Average High Country Home Energy Usage Hits Historic Highs in January, Here’s How BREMCO is Responding

The new year is getting of to a nippy start here in the High Country. 

The Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation is seeing a significant spike in home energy usage due to the heating needs in the area. 

“The great news is that due to the extreme cold weather, we know that the power bills will be high this time of year so we are going to be able to give members a temporary rate reduction on their February bill,” said Renee Whitener, director of public relations for the corporation.

fixe_0866“It is very exciting for us to be able to help members. The average member typically will use 1,000 KWH (kilowatt hours) per month, and we are offering a $9 reduction for every 1,000 KWH used.”

Overall, this reduction will save members of Blue Ridge Electric more than $1 million.

“As a cooperative, we’re not in business to make a profit–we’re here to provide service at the lowest possible cost to our members,” said Doug Johnson, chief executive officer of Blue Ridge Electric. “In our service area, members use more electricity during these cold winter months so we’re very pleased to provide this reduction at a time when it can most help our members.

BREMCO hit the all-time peak demand record in early January with 383 megawatts of usage.

With temperatures dropping to their lowest in years in the cooperative’s service area, demand for electricity–primarily due to heating needs–is more than 10 percent higher than normal for this time of year.

“The great thing is that even with all the cold and snow, we haven’t had ice and high winds to cause power outages,” Whitener said.  “We are so excited about having no outages. And most of our service area is very sunny and the sunlight really makes a difference to people.” 

To contact BREMCO, click here or call 264-8894

Keeping People Out of Crisis: Local Agencies Assist Those in Need of Help Heating Their Homes with Electric, Liquid Fuels and Wood 

The cold weather means that some people may be in a bit of a crisis when their power bills arrive. Even so, there are some area agencies who are more than willing to help those in need to heat their homes and keep their families safe and warm. 

Watauga Crisis Assistance Network’s (WeCAN) Warm Hearts Warm Homes campaign raises money to buy heating fuel for low-income community members in need. Anyone in a low-income home is eligible to request fuel gifts. Through partnerships with local energy companies WeCAN provides each client 100 gallons of fuel, an average cost of $420.

WeCan works directly with clients and energy companies to assist with energy and heating bills on a case by case basis.

In December, WeCAN provided $10,000 in assistance to those in need for power bills.

This month, the need has already reached and surpassed that number, with $8,100 in heating assistance already this year and $3,900 in electric bill assistance. 

“Just in this last bit with the extreme cold, the need has been horrific. This January weather has really thrown us,” said Graham Doege, WeCan Services Coordinator. 

“There is always more need than we can accommodate, hard as we try. We were floating along and we were doing really well until Christmas. That’s when need really started to rise and we do as much as we can.”

For years, neighbors have been helping neighbors in the High Country without even having to try.

“In addition, we have used about $7,000 in funds from Operation Round Up,” said Doege.

“Operation Round Up is a program through BREMCO and New River Light and Power that allows customers to round up their power bill to the next dollar. Most people don’t miss an extra 20 cents on their power bills, but in a pool with thousands of customers, we are able to help so many people. It has been an enormous help.”

To contact WeCAN click here or call 828-264-1237.

Foundations like WeCan are a welcome help for the High Country. With 26% of Watauga County residents living in poverty and another estimated 20% unable to earn a living wage, support from the community is more critical than ever.

Federally funded organizations like the Department of Social Security is currently out of emergency funds, although they are still doing their LEAP (low-income energy assistance program) for low-income families with children under five, the disabled, or those aged 60 and over. 

Since Social Security is federally funded, they can only serve certain segments of the population. 

DSC_0278The Hunger and Health Coalition of Watauga County offers free firewood to those in need by the truckload.

“We have done this wood pile for a very long time,” said Compton Fortuna, executive director of the Hunger and Health Coalition.

“The wood is donated to our lot and the men from Grace Lutheran Church have really taken a leadership role and coordinate and cut all the wood that is here. People can approach us with a need and if they meet our eligibility they can take some home by the truckfull.”

This week in particular has been a very busy week for the organization, with 18 vouchers given out yesterday alone.

“On average, we do about 40 truckloads of firewood per month. We had 18 truckloads just yesterday. This week we have been running out of cut wood by the end of each day.” 

Volunteers have been working tirelessly to keep cut wood available for families in need, but the demand has been higher this month than any other month this year. 

To contact the Health and Hunger Coalition, click here or call 262-1628.

ComfortPros, an affiliate of the non-profit W.A.M.Y. Community Action, offers residents of the High Country and the Foothills energy assessments and building science services to reduce heating and cooling costs. W.A.M.Y.’s Weatherization Assistance and Heating Appliance Repair and Replacement programs enable low-income families to permanently reduce their energy bills by making their homes more energy-efficient. For more information, click here.

In it for the Long Haul: Frigid Temperatures are Going to Stick Around into Next Week

Though almost everyone in the High Country wishes it would warm up, it looks like the frigid temperatures and even colder wind chills are here to stay, at least for a little while.

According to RaysWeather.com, the highs are expected to break freezing only once between now and Monday. Friday is expected to be the coldest this week, with a projected high of just 18 degrees. Bitter cold, blustery wind and snow showers and flurries are expected to continue after the weekend. 

So folks, be sure to hunker down and keep warm, this cold snap isn’t budging. 

Neighbors Helping Neighbors: High Country Locals Help Each Other Out in a Neighborly Fashion. Here’s Some Tips to Stay Warm and Make Sure Others Do as Well

Following all the tips in the world can only do so much. Living in the High Country is unique for many reasons and among them is the sense of camaraderie and friendship that many of us feel for our neighbors. The frigid winter temperatures are one of the most important times for the community to come together to do what they can. 

There are so many small ways to help out that make such a huge difference. WeCAN is always seeking new volunteers. Interested parties can contact the Hospitality House to get trained and help to get people the heating they desperately need. Donations can always be made to help your neighbors. 

FIXE_0388If you aren’t a part of the Operation Round Up program, sign up for it. Your small donation of a few cents a month could be the difference between a family having comfort and heat. 

According to Stephen Sudderth, Watauga County’s Fire Marshal, neighbors checking on neighbors is one of the best ways to get through these harsh winter days without incident.

“If you have neighbors, check on them and give them a call to see how they are doing, especially if they are elderly, shut in or just live by themselves,” Sudderth said. 

“Anytime you are alone and something goes wrong, you may need some help. Make sure they have water, make sure they have heat. Just be a good neighbor and check on each other.”

Sudderth also recommends keeping a minimum of 72 hours worth of nonperishable provisions in your dwelling that you can live off of in the event of an emergency.

“Make sure you have extra food, extra blankets and extra water in case of a power outage,” Sudderth said. 

Energy Conservation Tips from the Pros 

To help conserve energy in your home despite the increased usage of heat, The Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation suggests the following:

  • Wash clothes on the cold or warm setting on your washing machine as often as possible. Most detergents work just as well in cold water as they do in hot water.
  • Take short showers rather than a full hot bath. It requires much less energy to heat water for a short shower than it does to heat enough water to fill an entire bath. This trick will also help to save on water consumption.
  • Ensure that your thermostat-controlled heat is working properly to be sure that you are not wasting energy. Keep your thermostat at a constant temperature rather than bumping it up and down throughout the day.
  • A microwave oven drastically reduces the amount of energy needed to cook food, and usually can cook it in a quarter of the time that the oven would require.
  • For more energy saving tips from BREMCO, visit their website here. The corporation also offers a free home energy usage audit that can be used to track the energy you use in your home. To view the audit, click here

Tips from the American Red Cross

  • Wear layers of lightweight clothing to stay warm. Gloves and a hat will help prevent losing body heat. 
  • Seek medical attention immediately if you have symptoms of hypothermia including confusion, dizziness, exhaustion and severe shivering.
  • Watch for symptoms of frostbite including numbness, flushed gray, white, blue or yellow skin discoloration or waxy feeling skin.
  • Don’t forget your pets! Bring them indoors, and if they can’t come inside, make sure they have enough shelter to keep them warm and that they can get to liquid water that is not frozen.
  • Avoid frozen pipes. Run water, even at a trickle, to help prevent the pipes in your home from freezing. Open the kitchen and bathroom cabinets to allow warmer air to circulate around your plumbing. Be sure to move any harmful cleaners and household chemicals out of the reach of children. Keep the garage doors closed if there are water lines in the garage. 
  • Keep the thermostat at the same temperature day and night. Your heating bill may be a little higher but you can avoid a more costly repair job if your pipes freeze and burst. 

Space heaters, fireplaces and generators: Heating systems are running at full force and many people are resorting to other sources to keeping their homes warm. To avoid fire danger, you should remember the following: 

  • Never use a stove or oven to heat your home
  • If you are using a space heater, place it on a level, hard surface and keep anything flammable at least three feet away (paper, clothing, bedding, curtains, rugs). Turn off space heaters and make sure fireplace embers are out before leaving the room or going to bed.
  • If you are using a fireplace. use a glass or metal fire screen large enough to catch sparks and rolling logs 
  • Use generators correctly. Never operate a generator inside the home, including the basement or garage. 
  • Don’t hook up a generator to the home’s wiring. The safest thing to do is connect the equipment you want to power directly to the outlets on the generator.