Weatherization needs on Minn. reservations outstrips assistance

By Ambar Espinoza
Red Lake, Minnesota (AP) 4-08

One day recently workmen set up a blower machine in the three-bedroom home of Kelly Hill. This powerful fan will depressurize the entire house and reveal any place where heat is escaping.

Hill’s house is only a few years old and it leaked a lot of heat, which meant she had to keep the thermostat cranked really high to stay warm.

“We’d pretty much have to turn the heat up to 78 (degrees) for it to be warm in our house,” said Hill. “My furnace was constantly running and it was still pretty cold in our house.”

An energy audit showed some areas of the house were 40 degrees colder than they should have been. On cold winter nights, she and her husband would drag their mattress to the living room because their bedroom was unbearable. They have lived in this house for less than a year and spent a lot of money to heat it.

“I went through a lot of propane just since I’ve moved in here and I moved into my house June last year,” said Hill. “I went through...close to $2,000 worth of propane and in the other house I averaged $600-$700.”

A few days before the blower machine test, Hill’s home was re-insulated as part of the Red Lake Indian Energy Assistance Program. Hill lives here with her husband, five children and a puppy.

“We lived in a two bedroom and it was a lot warmer and my kids weren’t as sick,” said Hill. “Now that we’ve moved into this house, they’ve been getting colds, they wake up with a runny nose, and fevers. That’s starting to get a little bit better now.”

Hill is only one of 15 families on Red Lake whose homes will get weatherized this season. More than 1,100 Red Lake families are eligible for energy assistance and at least 60 percent of those homes need some kind of weatherization work, like insulation or a furnace replacement.

The program gets enough money to weatherize on average between 10 and 15 homes a year, says Mona Desjarlait, coordinator for the Red Lake program. This year the reservation’s program got about $51,000 and it’s not enough, she said.

“Clients call and say their house is cold and they have sick kids in the house,” said Desjarlait. “It just feels like the wind is blowing right through the house.”

Families at Red Lake spend up to 35 percent of their income to heat their homes. Elsewhere, that percentage is higher. At the White Earth Chippewa Reservation, half of the population spends 50 percent of their income on electric and heating costs, according to the Minnesota Department of Commerce.

“Sometimes we have people who are actually on the phone crying,” said Desjarlait. “They have no propane and no money to get it.”

Minnesota gets about $9 million for weatherization. That money is evenly distributed throughout the entire state based on the number of low-income families by county in relation to the overall population.

The state gets a few more million from the federal government and from partnerships with utility companies, so the program tries to work best with whatever it gets, said David Miller, the manager of the weatherization programs at the Minnesota Department of Commerce.

“This department, other aspects of state government and the governor’s office are very concerned about these disparities and these high costs and the added energy burden that is affecting tribal families,” said Miller. “(They) really try their absolute best to look at resources.”

This winter season, families have been able to fall back on money from a fuel assistance program from CITGO, which is owned by Venezuela. The oil company recently awarded Red Lake reservation a $500,000 grant. Now, each family gets an additional $260 in fuel assistance.

Back at Kelly Hill’s house, the weatherization crew is done with its blower machine test and they have good news about the heat loss: it’s dropped almost in half. The Hill family can feel the difference, too. They no longer have to keep the furnace running all day and night.