Editorial: Calamity looms (Stowe Reporter)

It could be New England's own Katrina disaster. Hundreds of homes rendered uninhabitable, families' finances stretched to the limit, some driven away altogether to take shelter with friends or family. But unlike Katrina, this calamity is clearly visible on the horizon and we have months to prepare.

With home heating oil prices nearly twice what they were one year ago, and no price relief in sight, thousands of Vermonters will be struggling this winter to keep their homes warm. The financial effect of an additional $500 to more than $1,000 on the winter's oil bill will force many to choose between heat and other necessities, such as food. Local fuel dealers, who know firsthand how difficult it is for many to pay their heating bills, are sounding the alarm, along with social services and heating assistance agencies.

"I am very, very concerned; this is going to be very tough for a lot of people," said Larry Miller, a manager at Bourne's Heating Fuels in Morrisville, which serves some 6,000 customers in the area.

If you burned 500 gallons of heating oil last winter at the going rate of about $2.72 a gallon, it cost you about $1,360 to heat your home. At the current price of about $4.75, your bill next winter will come in at $2,375, an increase of more than $1,000. That's if prices stay at current levels. Some predict that oil prices will go even higher.

And many folks won't have the luxury anymore of paying for their oil on account; in other words, as much as 30 days after taking delivery. It used to be that fuel dealers could borrow the money to buy the fuel they needed well in advance. Now, with credit tightening up and oil prices through the roof, they can't do that anymore. Which means many fuel dealers are going to require payment in advance or cash on the barrel, as they say.

Prices for propane and kerosene are lower, but rising, too. But for every house heated with wood or electricity or natural gas, there are two heated by oil (60 percent of Vermont households).

So, what to do? Don't wait and do nothing. Everyone, from the governor to our congressional delegation right on down to the local fuel dealer, is urging Vermonters to pick up the phone, get advice. Start now, saving, insulating, discussing options with your fuel dealer.

• Information. The Fuel and Food Partnership brings together resources for Vermonters. Call 2-1-1 for information, or go to www.helpforvt.org. The Web site offers information about who qualifies for finance aid under the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, called LIHEAP. A family of four earning $42,829 can qualify for heating or weatherization assistance. One person living alone can qualify if income is $22,271 or less. There's a lot more about home weatherization programs, energy audits, and options for those who don't qualify for aid.

• Financial help. The Vermont Seasonal Fuel Assistance Program. To be eligible, your monthly net income must be below 125 percent of the federal poverty level. For more info: www.dcf.state.vt.us/esd/fuel_assistance.

• Reach out to friends and neighbors. Everyone is dependent on someone else in a crisis.

• Paying your bill. Dealers say they won't be able to wait around for payment anymore. It's a question of saving their companies. So if you don't pay in advance, upon delivery or, if you're lucky enough to be on account, on time, you'll probably be cut off. Waiting for the April tax refund to pay for heating fuel was a Vermont tradition. No longer. As one fuel dealer told the Caledonian Record newspaper recently: That's a "piece of Vermont Americana history."

• Borrow. Some banks have set up loans to allow consumers to spread the cost of home heating oil over 12 months, or to pay off last season's leftover bill and buy more. This is far cheaper than slapping your oil purchase on a credit card at interest rates of upward of 16 percent.

• Hope. The best hope is that prices go down. But the forces at play are so vast and varied, they're difficult to understand. In the long run, the best response is one that has been around forever: thrift. Insulate your home, turn down the thermostat, be smart with your money.