RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. As hot as it may be outside, people in the Northeast are bracing for the cold. Heating oil prices have almost doubled over the past year. The costs of kerosene and natural gas are up, too, and that has local officials worrying about a possible crisis this winter. North Country Public Radio's David Sommerstein has the first of two reports.
DAVID SOMMERSTEIN: Outside the Essex County government buildings in Elizabethtown, New York, employees Lee Ann Pierce and Katie Cariffe are thinning the flower gardens, but they're already thinking about staying warm this winter.
Ms. LEE ANN PIERCE (Employee, Essex County, New York): We were just talking about it, like, five minutes ago, before you walked over here.
SOMMERSTEIN: Pierce wishes she could buy a wood stove or move to Florida. She paid $2,000 on heating oil last year. She doesn't know how she'll afford almost twice that this winter.
Ms. PIERCE: Right now, it's just going to be fly by the seat of our pants and hope we don't freeze to death, I guess.
SOMMERSTEIN: The women are serious. Gas and food are already too much. Cariffe and her husband feel besieged by high prices.
Ms. KATIE CARIFFE (Employee, Essex County, New York): Both of us drive used cars. Now we're looking at, are either one of our cars going to be able to make it through winter so we can get to work to buy the fuel? I mean, our mortgage alone is $700 a month.
SOMMERSTEIN: Stories like these worry Essex County Manager Cliff Donaldson. Rural towns here, high in the Adirondack Mountains and 50 miles from Canada, are known for punishing winters.
Mr. CLIFF DONALDSON (Manager, Essex County, New York): We're worried about people who are pushed to the edge. Do I pay for my medicines? Do I pay for heat? Do I, you know, pay for food? What does that do to them mentally?
SOMMERSTEIN: Donaldson's formed a task force to prepare for this winter. Its members are contacting food banks, suggesting the elderly move in with relatives and planning for temporary shelters for people who can't keep up with their heating bills.
Mr. DONALDSON: You get that call in the middle of the night. They're out of oil. It's 30 below zero. You've got to have a place to move them.
SOMMERSTEIN: Across the Northeast, officials are forming similar task forces and warning of a coming storm. New England's governors met in Boston last month. John Baldacci is governor of Maine, which has the highest heating oil rates in the country.
Governor JOHN BALDACCI (Democrat, Maine): People are anxious about it. They're angry about it and concerned about it. It has impact on all of our economies.
SOMMERSTEIN: All the states expect a big jump in the number of applications for the federal government's Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP. The governors implored Congress to nearly double LIHEAP funding over last year to $5.1 billion, but a bill to do that has stalled in the Senate.
The money is unlikely to help everyone who needs it. Many people, like the women in Essex County, are above the income threshold, and it won't help landlords if they get stuck with heating bills their tenants can't pay.
Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick told people not to wait for the government to act and do what they can to make their homes more energy efficient.
Governor DEVAL PATRICK (Democrat, Massachusetts): One simple thing which we urge all consumers to do is get an energy audit of their homes, and do it this summer.
Unidentified Woman #1: You have three messages. To get messages, press two.
(Soundbite of beep)
Unidentified Woman #2: This message is for Ann.
SOMMERSTEIN: Ann Heidenreich does energy audits in Canton, New York. Her voice mail's been full lately. It used to be Heidenreich reaching out to town councils, churches and other groups. Now they call her.
Ms. ANN HEIDENREICH (Energy Auditor, Canton, New York): It's - I would say radically different. I've never seen anything like this.
SOMMERSTEIN: New York, Vermont, Massachusetts and other states are offering low-interest loans to help homeowners install storm windows and doors, plug drafty leaks and buy wood or pellet stoves. But those programs don't change the global price of oil. The biggest variable now is the weather. Everybody fears a deep freeze. Then, says Heidenreich, the region could face a season-long crisis.
Ms. HEIDENREICH: It's the whole winter, and the long emergency is going to take a whole lot more planning, thinking, being there for people who need help.
SOMMERSTEIN: Officials across the Northeast agree if they wait for the first cold snap to plan for this winter, it'll be too late. For NPR News, I'm David Sommerstein in northern New York.
INSKEEP: In tomorrow's report, we'll hear about the oil man caught in the middle. He's got to pay more for his product, but customers cannot afford to pay their bills.