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Heat an added hardship for those struggling to pay bills

In the middle of one of the worst heat waves in memory, use of electricity has gone through the roof.

That means power bills have shot through that same hole in the roof, and the poorest among us - the working poor and unemployed - are struggling to plug that hole and keep the power on.

Even though utilities do not disconnect service on the hottest days - Wednesday and Thursday saw no disconnections - each provider has a different benchmark for cutting off the power for nonpayment.

But if you are Robert Hill, and the power is already cut off, there is no short-term bridge.

The roofer and carpenter said illnesses kept him out of work for weeks, and he fell behind on his bills. He has no insurance. He has no savings. He just has a pregnant wife, no refrigerator and no fans.

Inside his home Thursday, the temperature was 97 degrees.

"We had power cut off Monday, and knowing it was coming, we filled up tubs with water beforehand just so we could take a jug and bathe," Hill said. "I have a wife that is eight months pregnant. We had to give away all our food because it would have spoiled."

The three local utility companies have different policies for disconnection.

Rock Hill Utilities, with the highest threshold, does not disconnect if any of three weather forecasts call for temperatures of 99 degrees, said Lori Thomas of the city department.

York Electric Cooperative uses a far lower barrier - a forecast high of 92 degrees means no disconnections, said Marc Howie, director of member services.

Duke Power uses the heat index - how hot it feels outside. If the heat index is 105 or higher, Duke does not disconnect, said spokesman Randy Wheeles.

So the near-record heat this week has given people such as Brenda Sullivan, 64, who works in food service at Winthrop University, a brief reprieve. In the summer, Sullivan has no job. She gets $95 a week unemployment benefits, $61 in food stamps, and $664 a month in Social Security.

Her bill has almost doubled the past month as she and her husband have tried to keep cool. Somewhere, she has to find $262.46. She received a little help Thursday at Hope Inc., a Rock Hill nonprofit that helps with emergency assistance.

"I was able to make it this far, but now..." Sullivan said. "The heat has made my bill so much higher."

Requests for utility help have jumped considerably in the heat wave, said Bo Coleman of Hope Inc. and Susan Dean of Pilgrims' Inn, another Rock Hill charity.

One family with an asthmatic child who requires constant help breathing came to Pilgrims' Inn on Thursday with no options left and days until the power was due to be cut off. But Pilgrims' Inn has no money for utilities, Dean said.

"Our food pantry shelves are almost empty - if people have money to pay the utility bill, then they can't afford food," Dean said. "Most of these are not the chronic needy, but people wiped out by the economy or unable to make it on what they make."

One such person is Charles Wesley, who works at a fast-food restaurant and has three children - including one with special needs. Wesley and his wife, Joanie, received some food Thursday and have until next week to pay an overdue electric bill.

"I have half, and I hope to have the other half to keep the power on when I get my next paycheck," Wesley said. "I work, and I have to keep the power on. Something else will have to not get paid to do that, if that is what it takes.

"My family's safety comes first."

Tonya George is out of work on maternity leave, and her high utility bill had her scrambling to try Carolina Community Actions for help Thursday. She has a mortgage, always worked, but high utilities to keep a newborn and another daughter cool have left her in a bind.

"I have to have electricity, with my 9-year-old and the baby," George said.

Yet for Robert Hill, he and his wife wait for a baby to come with no electricity at all.

"It's rough," Hill said. "And it's hot."

Need help?

The United Way offers a referral service to nonprofits and charities that provide utility assistance. Call 2-1-1 for information.