Utility Shut-Off Deaths Begin

Sharon January 27th, 2009

I’ve been worrying for a long time about what is going to happen to many of us when we can no longer pay our utility bills – and urging people to put what resources they can to being able to live without their utilities.  I’ve written about this a number of times.

 Now a reader (thanks, Edward!) has sent me this, the story of a 93 year old World War II veteran who died of hypothermia in his home because he couldn’t pay his electric bill.  Marvin Schur’s death is the first case I know of during this Depression that involves someone freezing to death in their home due to a utility shut off, but it will not be the last, I fear.

Bay City Electric Light and Power, which is owned by the city, said a limiter was placed on Schur’s electrical line.

 

The device limits the power that reaches a home, and it blows out like a fuse if power consumption rises past a set level.

 

The manager of Bay City said the limiter was tripped sometime between the time of installation and the discovery of the man’s body.

 

The city manager said city workers keep the limiter on a house for 10 days, then shut off power entirely if the homeowner hasn’t paid utility bills or arranged to do so.

 

A medical examiner who conducted the autopsy on Schur told TV5 and WNEM.com that Schur died a painful death due to the hypothermia.

 

Dr. Kanu Varani has done hundreds of autopsies, and he said he’d never seen a person die of hypothermia indoors.

 

A neighbor who lives across the street from Schur is angered that the city didn’t personally notify the elderly man about his utility situation.

 

Schur’s neighbor, Herndon, said Schur had a utility bill on his kitchen table with a large amount of money clipped to it, with the intention of paying that bill.”

This is, of course, a horror and a shameful thing to allow to happen.  But a life with few or no utilities is probably in many people’s future – already families are unable to fill oil tanks and are making do with electric space heaters.  What happens when the electricity goes as well?  While many states have limits on utility companies shutting off during the heating season, some places have suffered chronic violations of these laws, and the pressure to shut off is likely to rise steadily as more and more Americans are in debt to their utility companies.  At last check 26% of all Americans were overdue on at least one utility bill.

This is one of my older articles - I’ve written about this a number of times – but my own conviction is that many, many of us will live without utilities, not because the grid crashes (which might also happen), but because we will increasingly be priced out of basic services like lights and heat.  I don’t want this to happen to anyone else – so find ways to live comfortably without power if you can, and please, please keep an eye on your vulnerable neighbors.  The elderly and disabled have the fewest recourses and are the most likely to die – and they may be ashamed to ask for help.  Don’t make them ask, be there offering, so that no one will ever die this painful death again. 

Sharon

35 Responses to “Utility Shut-Off Deaths Begin”

  1. TheNormalMiddle says:

    What makes me the angriest is that here where I am, I have no control over my utilities. There is ONE water company. ONE power company. They continually raise rates. Our power bill last month was $217 and we keep the house around 65 or lower, most days.

    It is such a monopoly and we have no recourse to get a better rate.

  2. Erika says:

    That makes me SICK.

    I agree with Normal… where I live, we don’t have a choice on utilities – PSE provides energy, no other conventional electricity chocies, CNG – natural gas, my choice there is to use gas or electricity or propane or other alternatives… PUD provides water, which they plan on fluoridating… based on a 52% yea vote 2 years ago… I’m not a bitter flourodosis (sp) patient… not me…

    CNG, our natural gas folks, sent a note in our bill a few weeks ago notifying us that the next month’s bill would be going up 28%. ONE MONTH’S NOTICE that our bill was going UP NEARLY A THIRD! I live in an area with a lot of lower income folks; I just hope that CNG and PSE can be reasonable enough to not allow what happened to Mr. Schur happen to anyone else!

    –Erika

  3. Lisa Z says:

    In Minnesota it’s illegal for power companies to shut you off in winter, though since Michigan didn’t shut this man off just put a “limiter” on his power, I’m not sure if that’s still legal.

    While this is a very sad story, I don’t think it’s the beginning of these things happening. This has happened before.

  4. Lisa Z says:

    I’m not sure how “choice” would’ve helped this situation. This seems to me like the epitome of a capitalist-type business decision, not a problem of centralized control. (But I’m not making an argument in either direction…)

  5. Shamba says:

    What struck me about this story was his age and he had no family–at least, his wife was deceased and they had no children. Of course, Children don’t necessarily mean good care and attention for people who don’t have them. Neighbors can check on each other and friends can be your family of choice and /or neighbors and friends can be both.

    I don’t know what the solution for this isexcept for people to watch out for each other if they can.

    cheers,
    shamba

  6. Jill says:

    Here is another story about the man from Bay City, it has a bit more info: http://abclocal.go.com/wjrt/story?section=news/local&id=6625291

    This article states “Bay City has delivered 200 shutoff notices to its customers” and “the city has installed as many as 70 limiters on residents’ homes. That’s three times more than last year.”

    We live less than hour away from where this happened. We’ve been having subzero nights and single digit days for most of the month. Wind chills have routinely been -10 to -20 F. This is very sad and very tragic, all the more reason to get to know your neighbors.

    Jill in Michigan

  7. debra says:

    every winter there’s a story here of someone, usually elderly, who has died due to lack of indoor heat or improper use of alternative heating (ie space heater tipping over and starting a fire, leaving the stove or oven on and starting a fire, bbq grill in the house creating carbon monoxide) and every summer there are stories of people, again, usually the elderly, dying from the heat because they cannot afford the power bill and food, and medication, and rent, and,….. my local power, water and gas companies give the option on the bil of contributing to a fund that keeps these services running for those citizens who cannot pay their bills. contributions can be as little as a dollar or as much as you might like and, truthfully, it’s money you won’t miss. it’s the cost of that cup of coffee you don’t really need or the dvd rental you could skip for a walk with the kids or some time on the playground. i like to play a “game” with my kids called “What if…” it runs along the lines of… “what if there was a natural disaster and we had no power for a week?” then i flip the breaker for a day or two and we go without. the practice came in handy last september when ike made his presence known. “what if mom lost her job and we had to live on the food we have in the house?” then we don’t grocery shop for a week. they (and i) have learned a greater appreciation for those things that we do have.

  8. Sarah says:

    If you live in Massachusetts (or even if you don’t, I suppose) and still have some room in your budget, or if you’re in need of heat, Mass Energy has a heating oil bank for emergency oil deliveries:

    http://www.massenergy.com/Comm.Intro.html

  9. Rosa says:

    This is one of the reasons I’m excited about word that the “stimulus” package is going to include funds for retrofitting and weatherproofing.

    I dont’ mind donating for people’s heat bills, we do it every year, but I would be *way* happier contributing to upgrading all the housing to be more energy efficient.

    We haven’t had reported electricity cutoff deaths this year, but we have had an awful lot of apartment fires that I worry may be linked to nonstandard heating arrangements :(

  10. Joanna says:

    So sad. Diffusion of responsibility is a terrible thing. ‘It’s not my fault he can’t pay his bill, my boss says put on the limiter…’ ‘It’s not our (the company’s ) fault, why aren’t there better programs out there?’ ‘It’s not my fault, why didn’t his other neighbor check on him…’ Ad nauseum. Corporate-thinking America at it’s finest.

  11. Dalel says:

    Tragic, of course.

    But, also a failure of his community in caring for him — an article I read indicates the limiter devices can be reset by the resident,….but he had dementia and thus may not have been capable of turning the power back on.

    Some of the neighbors blamed the company entirely, when they themselves could have ensured his survival and prevented his suffering.

    Perhaps the devolving situation will lead us back to thinking of others instead of continuing in our pursuit of pure self-interest.

  12. Gen says:

    What a sad story to hear. It is very easy to blame and not do anything personally. We need to remember that businesses have to be profitable to be able to continue to pay wages and provide services. It would be wonderful if essential service type businesses could employ someone who could check out situations of non-payment, to help protect the elderly and special needs people by providing them with information and/or help with utility payments.
    But what WE can do, besides say how terrible this is, would be to take the idea of community and put it into action. Thanks to an area fire chief, we have done this in our neighborhood. In case of an area emergency, each of our block captains (have 10-12 homes per captain) will check on their ‘families’ to see how everyone is doing. We have had mock disaster practices a couple of times. This is a different situation, I realize, and we need to expand on this beginning, but the point is to get to know people in your area. You can help those in need, and trade/barter skills with others. Do what you can to develop a sense of community with those you live around. It could be beneficial for all.

  13. Down the road from us there lives a ‘hermit’. A real hermit guy, he keeps to himself and isn’t crazy or harmful, just a bit odd.

    We realized about a month ago we’ve not seen his van go by for ages … like, we can’t remember when we saw it last. No tracks in the snow going his way, nothing. Other neighbours also on his route ‘out’ haven’t seen him either.

    He’s entirely off grid but uses a generator so he’d have to go out for gasoline at least.

    I’m going to either go down there myself and see if he’s ok or call the local constabulary to have a look. I’ve been thinking about doing it for a few weeks … this is enough of a kick in the pants to actually do it.

    I do hope the old codger’s okay.

  14. Alan says:

    Having a “choice” of companies providing electricity or gas wouldn’t make any difference in tragedies like this. Utilities are “natural monopolies” but nothing says they have to be run like vicious, selfish private businesses. Most states have Public Utility Commissions which dictate how all utilities — public and private — must be operated.

    If Minnesota’s PUC allows utilities to do things like the action which caused this elderly man’s death, then that’s a failure by the people of Minnesota to see that their PUC does what it should. The ownership of that utility should be prosecuted for the man’s death if they were disobeying PUC regulations. If they were in compliance with such regulations, then the PUC commissioners should be held responsible.

    At the very least those commissioners should be removed from office and people with a concern for human rights should be elected to those positions.

  15. ArdenLynn says:

    Add water to the list. We have Ohio American Water and despite fighting constant rate hikes we are being gouged every month.

    We have a big family so we expect to pay more but even my elderly parents pay over $70 a month just for the two of them. They don’t use a dishwasher and they infrequently take showers. They have low flow toilets and they ummm, flush as needed.

    It’s the same with my neighbor and it’s just the two of them as well. She has had all her utilities cut off because of nonpayment, including water.

  16. Sharon says:

    I agree there’s a failure of community, but the primary failure is the utility’s – winter shut offs kill people. Enough elderly and disabled people can’t handle something like a limiter – which means utilities, which provide a public resource and get all sorts of public subsidies *must* be sure what they are doing – because they know they can kill people.

    Sharon

  17. Anonymous says:

    I agree this is a terrible tragedy.

    But I don’t think people are understanding what the power company did. They put a limiter on his electric use. A limiter allows just enough electric for the fan on the gas furnace to run. They did not shut off his gas.

    The man clearly had dementia if he was trying to heat in sub-zero temps with an electric oven. Very sad and tragic, agreed. But I kind of fail to see how it’s the power company’s fault that he didn’t have enough wits about him to use his furnace.

  18. curiousalexa says:

    Any suggestions on how to get to know our older neighbors?

    In my case, they rarely come out of the house, and only after several years of random sidewalk greetings do I even get an acknowledgment. I worry about them, but I don’t know how to establish communication without being pushy/intrusive.

  19. Greenpa says:

    Yes. And the murder-suicides are increasing dramatically, too. CNN is gloating today over one where the man killed his family of 5, then himself, after he lost his job.

    Someone needs to keep a running tally of these deaths. The government will not. But we need this statistic.

    We’re about to lose our state health coverage here, because of state budget shortfalls. Brilliantly, they’re not cutting health care for children- just their parents. So you’ll have lots of healthy orphans, to keep the brothels and jails supplied.

    And the Republicans, of course, are making noises about how it’s better for the economy to have another tax cut for business. Ignoring the deaths.

    Not joking here; someone needs to start/run a blog that puts these numbers together. I can’t; over my ears. Somebody?

  20. Greenpa, I would be glad to.

    Do you know the keywords I would search for? I’m thinking “murder-suicide,” but how would one search for death by cold? What keywords would I use? “Utility shut off death” would be one, but I’m sure there are many others.

  21. linda says:

    A very sad story. One thing that you wrote Sharon about families using space heaters. When I first moved to Chicago, I found an alarming amount of often fatal home fires began with space heaters. Usually the use of such heaters was because landlord refused to provide sufficient heat and the fatalities are due to the same landlords not providing fire alarms either. People are sometimes afraid to report the landlord and if they do, the city takes a long time to come and inspect. So the same situations may be occurring in cold climates without being reported on a wider scale. However, in this city at least, the power companies cannot easily turn off power in the winter months. So it depends largely on city regulations.
    I urge anybody who is having trouble paying heating utilities to contact Salvation Army and Catholic Charities. Both will help you pay the bills and keep power going.
    We have to start looking after others is what I got out of this.

  22. Shelley says:

    Resources

    There is so much on this blog about resources of all sorts….natural, character, food storage….

    This tragedy is a tradegy of lack of resources but of a different kind. This poor old man lacked resourcefulness. He just did not know what to do. So many of the comments reveal that you all know what to do and how to help another or yourself in all sorts of circumstance. I have learned through watching the life of a dear dear friend that some folks really truly do not have this….the character trait called RESOURCEFULNESS.

    At first it was hard for me to understand how it was that she would let her child wear sneakers where the sole had separated from the top, in sub-zero weather. Then I realized she did not know about yard sales, or Salvation Army. She didn’t know that she could buy shoes that were too big and save them for later. She didn’t know that the big bag of farina cost so so much less than the tiny box of Malto-meal. She didn’t know so much…so much. Over time and because we were best friends, she learned and is now more resourceful than I am by far!

    I don’t know how to address the societal problem of lack of resourcefulness. Not a clue. But it is a real and serious depletion of a basic human character trait that I think many of our recent ancestors had and took for granted.

    Your ideas?

  23. Stephen B. says:

    An update on this story: It seems that money was not the issue as to why the utility bill went unpaid for four months:

    “The medical examiner is looking into whether Schur suffered from dementia, particularly after police found enough cash lying around in the home to cover his bills. His nephew William Walworth said Schur told him two years ago he had $600,000 in savings.’

    http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,484724,00.html

    What I think this story does speak to is the need for people of all ages to come together in common living arrangements as we’ve discussed here in the past. This was a man that should not have had to live (and die) alone.

  24. linda says:

    Stephen
    I totally agree with one. One task I have tried and failed over and over again is to forge community in a large city. I have for example, befriended the elderly and helped them out until their children decided that this was not good (fearing that I would end up inheriting things?) so they would start to step in now and then. I don’t resent that because it made my elderly friends happy, but had I not taken the time, would the kids have bothered?
    I would be interested to hear from anybody who has forged that community in large cities successfully. I have a hard time with it.

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  26. Sharon says:

    Sardine, like Greenpa, I think this would be an essential service. You might try putting google alerts for your self with the keywords you mentioned to be linked to “unemployment” “froze” “hunger” – you’d have to sort through a lot of junk though, but it would be worth it, if you are willing.

    My guess is that a man who had lived independently for 93 years did have resourcefulness once – which is again, why I think that the utility company is responsible to know who they are shutting off. In most states, the very elderly and disabled *cannot* be shut off during the winter legally – that is, other states recognize this responsibility to know who you are shutting off. There are plenty of elderly people who can’t get out to reset a limiter, because of physical disabilities – they don’t know. And thus, the installation in the house of an elderly or disabled person represents potentially a death sentence. No utility fails to understand that their shutoffs can kill people.

    I agree with Stephen – this man shouldn’t have been living alone.

    Sharon

  27. Greenpa says:

    hi, Sardine. wow, that’s quite an offer.

    You realize, something like this could take over your life? :-)

    I’m delighted Sharon is in agreement on the importance here.

    My own vision was for a source that records all the various deaths that can be attributed directly or indirectly to the depression; not just murders or suicides; but the deaths from neglect- and various forms of despair.

    Definitions immediately become difficult, and nearly insurmountable.

    Here is what I would do.

    A. Start.
    B. Ask for others to help- feeding you information and links.

    I think the blog format is tremendously powerful for this chore; and you might want to find someone who could make it into a Wiki format; where it is possible for many to contribute directly.

    Make it inclusive. Divisons are always possible later.

    Even there- do we count by country? Probably. But the “whole world” number is critical, too. Starvation in Haiti? yup. Kenya crop failures- and no aid? yup. Deaths from cholera in Zimbabwe? Difficult. Take a vote. Maybe run Zimbab we numbers separately until Mugabe implodes or explodes.

    You see what I mean- this can be a huge task.

    A for-instance; two weeks ago 2 70 year old brothers died in a house fire nearby. Was that a despair related death? I don’t know; but I’d give it a high probability; those guys had lived there for decades with no problem. Quite possible they were in financial trouble; took sleeping pills, and burned their house down. None of the papers will mention this; it isn’t on national radar at all; but the neighbors know. If any of them are aware of your blog; they might be able to get the info to you. Two more.

    You’re going to be digging out cryptic information; some of intentionally obscured.

    It could be exciting work to do, too. And possibly influential, at some point.

    I’d monitor the yellow journalism media- National Inquirer, etc.

    Here’s a link from todays CNN:

    http://tinyurl.com/d6rkx2

    They’re talking to a suicide hotline worker; she says she’s never “seen it so bad”. That’s a hint- there ARE statistics published on suicide rates- but they are being hushed.

    I saw one- suicides in the Detroit rate were up something like 15% last year- but the government specifically published a disclaimer saying ‘”it’s not the economy”. But it is.

    Just plain comparisons of suicide and murder rates from past years would be good, and valid. I’d recruit someone skilled in statistics as soon as possible; and someone who can get the information into good graphic formats.

    It could be a huge undertaking. If it’s more than you’d really contemplated- what you might do is simply aim to launch it.

    Start. Recruit help. Aim for it to take off on it’s own.

    I think there will be a high burn out rate among contributors. It’s a grim topic. You need to plan for that, too.

    So. What do you think? If you set it up, I’d be really happy to do a blog post on my blog about it. I’ll bet Sharon would- since this grew up on her blog anyway. Crunchy probably. It could take off.

  28. Greenpa says:

    A new one, from our friends at CNN- family of 4 in Ohio; suicide note, not being made public.

    http://www.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/01/29/ohio.family.dead/index.html

  29. george says:

    whoa !

    so that was a limiter ?

    it did its job all too well.

    put a limit on that old dude’s life.

    those bay city utility folks will sue his estate for the rest of the bill.

    i wonder if the heat is running merrily along in that old guy’s house today ?

    after all , the lawyers, banks , judges , and courts have to have a piece of the carcass.

    can’t let the house go all to heck.

  30. Hi, Greenpa and Sharon -

    Thanks for some of the keywords. I used to do research work using google alerts, and I really liked it.

    I don’t think I can get too complicated to start, but I love the suggestions you have about it, Greenpa. I’ll start it on my blog in the next day or two, and perhaps others will be able to help it grow and we can eventually put it on its own blog site.

    Thanks!

  31. Greenpa says:

    Sardine- Super! I’m glad I didn’t scare you out of it!

    here’s another:

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/28916090/

    these guys list a bunch of probables-

  32. graycat says:

    There is an excellent diary on DailyKos describing the economic devastation in that part of the country,

    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2009/1/26/225219/000

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