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WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 8, 2007
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Warning: Heat advisory in effect
Volunteer Center struggles to provide air conditioners to needy as temperatures approach danger zone

By Paul Huggins
phuggins@decaturdaily.com 340-2395

Emphysema makes breathing hard enough without having to contend with 90-degree heat inside a home.

That's why Patricia Lemley considered the Volunteer Center of Morgan County a lifesaver for providing her with a window air conditioning unit and an electric fan this summer.

"I was burning up, and I needed air conditioning to keep from getting heat stroke," the 57-year-old Decatur resident said.

The temperature inside her house surpassed 90 at times, so fans didn't offer much help, she said.

She received relief just in time, as the National Weather Service issued a heat advisory for Wednesday.

It issues heat advisories when heat indexes reach 110 or overnight low temperatures stay at 75 or above.

The forecast calls for temperatures in the upper 90s the next few days, possibly breaking 100 Thursday and Friday. Heat indexes, which factor in humidity, will be around 110.

Tuesday's high was 97, the same as Monday's, and the heat index was 102, the NWS said. The first week in August brought three days where temperatures reached 97 and one 98.

As temperatures soar, so does the demand for cooling devices at the Volunteer Center. By noon Tuesday, it had given away 17 air conditioners and 24 fans this summer — most of them since Aug. 1.

The center was down to one air conditioner that morning, but an anonymous donation of $600 allowed it to buy seven more.

At the rate people are calling, they will be gone shortly, and other residents could suffer unless more donations come in, said Dawnell Merril, adult and family services administrator for the Volunteer Center.

Parkway Medical Center and Decatur General Hospital have not received patients suffering from heat exhaustion or heat-related illnesses, but they said that could change as heat indexes rise.

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management forecast moderate air quality conditions Wednesday. People who are unusually sensitive to ozone may experience respiratory symptoms.

The rising mercury also means harder work for air conditioners.

Decatur Utilities reported electrical use is up to 260 megawatts for the past few days, the highest rate for the year.

That's the typical usage during the hottest time of the year, said Eric Baxley, DU engineer.

The record is 280 megawatts, set in 2001, mostly the result of increased industrial use, he said.

The Volunteer Center started the heat-relief program in 1996 when the much of the country was in a heat wave and the Decatur area registered more than 30 days above 90.

After reports of heat-related deaths in the Chicago area, the Volunteer Center decided lack of heat relief would not be an excuse for dying in Morgan County.

It will give away electric fans to just about anyone who expresses a need. To get an air conditioner, however, an applicant must provide a doctor's letter indicating a health need, such as asthma.

The air conditioners are the smallest (5,000 BTUs) and the cheapest the center can buy, generally between $85 and $100. They are capable of cooling one room.

The center uses a $5,000 Community Development Block Grant to help pay for the units, but $3,000 of that goes toward building wheelchair ramps and the remaining $2,000 is shared with a winter relief program to buy heaters.

Private donations, often from local churches, help increase the fund.

"It's never enough," Merrill said of the money needed to buy air conditioners.

Anyone who wants to contribute can call the Volunteer Center at 355-8628.

You can help

Anyone wanting to contribute to the air-conditioning fund should call the Volunteer Center of Morgan County at 355-8628.

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