It was cold here in Massachusetts today! Right now it’s 11 degrees with a 13 mph wind. Brrrr!! Even when it was in the 20’s and breezy this afternoon, we froze our backsides off running errands. And yet . . .
I was chatting earlier with a friend in Florida. It’s cold in Florida, too. Not as cold as Massachusetts, to be sure, but really cold for Florida. He even saw a bit of snow early this morning! Residents don’t expect that kind of cold. He was concerned about the plants and animals. They certainly aren’t hardy against that kind of cold. And yet . . .
And yet, we have homes that are well made and we can afford to heat them. We may be cold outdoors, but we can be warm inside. We certainly won’t freeze to death!
There are places where people have frozen to death in the past and it’s likely to happen again this winter. No, not in the arctic. I speak of South Dakota, specifically the Pine Ridge Reservation. The temperatures in South Dakota have fallen as low as minus 15 degrees. Since the reservation is basically flat land, there is always wind of some speed. Indeed, I have seen the temperature there, with the wind chill factor taken into account, “reach” minus 4o degrees. Even my friend and I would have a difficult time keeping our well made homes warm in those conditions.
But the homes on the Pine Ridge Reservation are NOT well made at all. Most of the homes are not insulated at all! Most have air leaks, some large enough to feel the drafts through the walls. There are few storm windows. Some of the trailers have numerous old tires on the roofs to prevent them from blowing off in the wind. Many people hang blankets over the window in lieu of curtains, to keep the warmth they do have inside.
Heating has been a huge problem this winter. It always is, of course, but there have also already been several blizzards this winter – one as early as October! The blizzards bring heavy snow. I spoke to one person this week who described 5′ snow drifts!! There is only one state route that crosses the rez, so the tribe would be responsible for clearing all the other roads – with insufficient equipment. Even the folks who do have cars won’t be able to get out – sometimes for days. You may be wondering how that would cause a heating problem.
Homes in Pine Ridge are typically heated in one of three ways: propane, wood or electric space heater.
If a family heats with propane, the propane often runs out before they have enough money to refill the tank. When you have blizzards, the propane tanks can’t get through on the roads, even if there is money to pay. No propane, no heat. (By the way, most stoves are propane also – no propane, no stove or oven use.)
Some families have electric space heaters to supplement the propane heat. They also use them to heat the whole home when the propane runs out. Some families, like my friends, have only the electric space heaters to try and heat the home all winter. Watch those electric meters run when the temperatures get below zero! But — when the electric bill gets too high and can’t be paid, the electric will be shut off. Many families don’t have stoves and use electric skillets, microwave ovens, and crock pots to cook. No electric, no space heaters, no hot food. A very sad state of affairs.
Even those with wood stoves may not have toasty homes. That’s because they run out of wood and can’t afford more. Or they can’t get more wood because the roads are impassible. The wood stoves are usually old and not well sealed, causing health issues. There are a lot of people with asthma on the reservation. Could this be one cause? When folks run out of wood, they have been known to burn everything they have at home to stay warm – furniture, clothing, books, anything that will burn. Homes have burned down due to wood stoves, high winds and inadequate fire fighting equipment for the 2 million acre reservation.
Pine Ridge Reservation is hardly unique in this freezing cold, inadequate heating and substandard housing. The other reservations in South Dakota have similar problems. But I don’t have friends and contacts on the others. I know Pine Ridge. I have been there and seen the homes. I have seen the front doors held closed by towels jammed between them and the door jamb. I have seen doors practically falling off and cracked and broken windows. I have seen my friends try to heat a small house with a single space heater.
The Oglala Lakota Tribe declared a State of Emergency at the end of December to try to help fund additional propane deliveries. It is a temporary fix, at best.
You may be wondering what you can do to help. If you aren’t, you should be!! Especially if you’re sitting in a warm home enjoying your day. You should be picturing the families huddled around a space heater trying to survive. In fact, why don’t you do that as soon as you finish reading this post.
Close your eyes and imagine that you are in a dilapidated wooden house. The wind is howling outside and the snow is falling fast. You ran out of propane yesterday, at the beginning of the storm. You have a small space heater to try to keep your family warm. You have made the children put on several layers of clothing under their winter coats. You assemble them and the elders in your home around the heater. You and the other adults hang to the outside of the circle. You are wearing your gloves and winter cap. The children want to eat but you can’t afford to use any more electricity or you have run out of food and can’t get more until the snow is cleared away. There’s already 2 feet. You try to play games with the kids to keep their minds off the cold. The older kids have been through this before and remember. The toddlers don’t understand. You worry about Grandma, who has diabetes and circulation problems in her legs. You worry that Auntie, who has diabetes also and needs dialysis, may not be able to make her appointment tomorrow.
Then open your eyes and feel the warmth around you.
If you are moved by the plight of the people I have described, who are real people, it is time to act. I would ask you to do two things.
First, put some money where your emotions are. It need not be a lot. In this economy, I know we all have to be careful. Share whatever you feel you can share to keep someone else from freezing. But where to send it? There is one group I know well, as I volunteer with them. I have seen and spoken to the people they have helped. You can PayPal a donation to One Spirit at http://nativeprogress.org . Check out the group’s website in my blogroll. They have a special program for winter heating. Make sure you indicate the donation should go for heat emergencies.
Second, make a fuss! Call your senators and congressmen. Call your local media. Let as many people as you can know that you are incensed that people are living in these conditions in the middle of the United States of America. You know that if this were happening in some third world nation, the people in the country would be generous beyond belief. It’s time for some charity to begin right here at home. And pray! Pray for those who are cold; pray for our nation to develop a conscience
If you have made some effort on behalf of these wonderful people, THANK YOU!!
If you cannot or will not do either of these two things, then pray for yourself. Your heart is obviously closed and your cold is on the inside.