In the dark

With electricity shut off, mom and kids looking for help

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By LA RISA LYNCH

There is no cool place inside Tabitha White's first-floor apartment. A soft breeze blowing through her open living room window offers little comfort from the sweltering heat outside.

Relief for her and her two children, both mentally disabled, comes from wiping themselves down with damp washcloths. White, an asthmatic with diabetes and hypertension, has been without electricity since Monday morning, turning her small apartment into a virtual oven.

ComEd shut the power off due to an outstanding $1,231.57 electric bill, a figure White says resulted from using space heaters during last winter's frigid weather. She hoped a statement from her doctor detailing her and her children's medical conditions would stop the shut off. But ComEd officials said they have not received the letter. Her 2-year-old daughter, Destiny, is developmental delayed and her 6-year-old son, Lawrence, suffers from autism

"I'm not able to get around real good because of the heat. I can have an asthma attack," said White, 40, who's on disability and suffers from seizures. "On real hot days, I can't go outside at all, so my kids have to stay in the house with me."

To beat the heat, White says she lets her children play in the shower.

The South Austin Community Coalition is working with White to get her electricity back on, but officials from the West Side social service agency contend White's situation is being repeated throughout the city.

SACCC's Elce Redmond said shutting electricity off during extreme hot weather creates a public health crisis, especially for those suffering from medical conditions. SACCC wants a moratorium on electricity shut offs so residents can work out a repayment or restoration plan with ComEd.

Redmond said both ComEd and the city's Department of Public Health need to do more to better deal with these kinds of weather emergencies. He cited the 1995 Chicago heat wave that killed between 700 and 800 people. SACC wants the city to be more proactive in getting ComEd to workout repayment plans.

"We need something much more than people going to cooling centers," Redmond said. "We need a comprehensive plan that ensures people who are disconnected can get reconnected."

ComEd, he added, is in a position to negotiate such plans since they just initiated a rate increase. He added this country's economic crisis doubly impacts the poor and working families.

"They are a heartless corporation who care less about their customers," Redmond said.

When White received the shut off notice July 18, she contacted ComEd to set up a deferred payment plan. A ComEd spokesperson acknowledged White's request, but could not say if arrangements had be made. 

"That is always our last resort with the customers. We do try to work with our customers. We make them aware of assistance and available programs," said Bennie Curry, ComEd's senior communications manager.

When asked about ComEd's policies for shut offs during extreme heat, Curry said, "We evaluate whether to halt services based on factors, including high heat and humidity." When asked if there was a set temperature, he said he was unsure of a set temperature.

SACCC advised White to have her doctor submit a statement outlining her family's medical issues to ComEd. White said the doctor faxed the statement on July 28. ComEd has no record of the letter. Curry said the letter would be taking into consideration in restoring her power.

"I guess we need to read the letter to make that determination," he said.

White hoped to get a 30-day extension that would carry her over to the start of the LIHEAP program, which provides financial assistance for low-income residents to pay utility bills. The LIHEAP program begins in September. Without electricity, White cannot use her nebulizer to help control her asthma.

"I'm using my asthma spray more than what I am supposed to, and it makes me real shaky," White told the Austin Weekly News on Monday. "If I get more depressed, it triggers me to have seizures."

White's condition worsened Tuesday when she was admitted to Norwegian Hospital after suffering from an anxiety attack.

"It's frustrating," said Lawrence Carter, who lives with White. "If it is not calm and cool and safe in the house, I can't go nowhere because she can suddenly catch an asthma attack any given time, and [Lawrence Jr.] will go into a rage at any given time."

To get through the night, Carter plans to fill coolers with bags of ice and place them inside each room. They decided not to go to cooling centers, because the centers are often crowded.

"Then on top of that, it is the type of people that be there," Carter added. "You try to keep them separated from your kids, and that will cause problems right there."

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