The recent cold snap in the Deep South has sucked federal emergency home heating dollars away from traditional cold-weather states, causing heating aid to dry up faster than usual in many northern states.
The South was the beneficiary last month when the Obama administration released $490 million in emergency heating funds, using a formula that took into account colder-than-normal temperatures and, for the first time, unemployment levels. Both factors favored the South, so Sun Belt states reaped the biggest gains.
Compared to last year, Maine saw a drop in emergency aid of 81 percent, followed by Vermont's 80 percent and New Hampshire's 78 percent. Alaska's was down 62 percent, Minnesota 28 percent.
By contrast, emergency funding more than tripled for Florida and Georgia, and more than doubled in North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas, according to the Northeast-Midwest Senate Coalition. Even Puerto Rico picked up $540,000 under the formula.
"We got royally screwed," said Tim Searles, an advocate for low-income residents in Vermont, a state where the temperature has dipped as low as 26 degrees below zero this winter.
The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which is expected to serve a record number of families this year, distributed $4.5 billion to all 50 states in base funding.
Additional emergency funding is released at the discretion of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, funds used by northern states to stretch out the heating assistance for extra weeks during lingering cold weather. The agency released $490 million of $590 million in emergency funds on Jan. 20.
Average fuel costs are down this winter, but the heating aid is still stretched thin because so many people have lost their jobs. The program served a record 8.3 million families last season; this season the number will be 20 to 30 percent higher, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association.
"The real problem is that we don't have enough money to meet the needs for assistance right now," said Mark Wolfe, the association's executive director in Washington, D.C.
The bottom line for northern states is that they're getting fewer dollars, even though heating costs take a bigger bite out of residents' pocket books. The average cost of heating a home with natural gas in the South is $740, the government says, while it can cost $2,500 to $3,500 using heating oil in Maine.
Already, lawmakers from northern states are lobbying for the remaining $100 million in emergency funding. The National Energy Assistance Directors' Association wants a supplemental appropriation to help families get through the remainder of the winter. The Coalition of Northeastern Governors is pressing for more money, as well.
"They've had a tough winter and they have a lot of people out of work," said Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, referring to Southern states. "But we have a tough winter every year and we have a lot of people out of work. They can't take the money from Maine because we'll be desperate without it."
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said the funding formula used by the Obama administration was "based on logic that demonstrates a lack of understanding of the intent" of the program.
Howls of protest would have been even louder if not for the fact that energy prices have remained stable this winter. Natural gas prices are lower than last season, while heating oil is higher.
But some states are feeling pain. In Massachusetts, recipients are bracing for their heating aid to dry up in a week or two, though cold weather is expected well beyond that, said John Drew, CEO of Action for Boston Community Development, a group that distributes heating aid to about 25,000 Boston residents.
In Boston, Percy Brown, 83, and his wife, Arlene, 78, received an extra payment of $255 for heating oil from the emergency funds. But that money will be exhausted within the next week or so. Both are retired and live on a fixed income in Boston's Mattapan neighborhood.
"It's terrible. I guess we'll just have to use our Social Security money," said Brown, who served in the Army Air Corps in World War II. "We've seen hard times before but nothing like this."
Dianne Saunders, 62, of Boston, said she has "no idea" what she's going to do when her heating assistance runs out.
"I guess we're just going to have to sit around in the cold with our coats on," said Saunders, who's disabled and lives in a Dorchester apartment with two grandchildren, ages 8 and 16. "I don't know what we're going to do."
In Maine, the state has received $4.7 million in emergency aid, compared to $29.7 million that it received last year. Currently, there are about 70,000 Maine households being served by the LIHEAP program, with an average benefit of about $811, said Dale McCormick, executive director of MaineHousing.
The road ahead doesn't look much better. The Obama administration's budget proposal for the coming fiscal year would cut overall heating aid by $1.8 billion.