A skyline at sunset
Urban areas such as Kansas City are often hotter than other places when intense heat strikes. (Canva image)

“This is NOT Typical Summertime Heat,” the National Weather Service office serving Kansas City announced in a graphic on social media last week. As the region struggled through a Midwest heat wave resulting in excessive-heat warning lasting several days, heat indices soared to over 120 degrees and the setting sun offered little relief as nighttime lows remained in the 80s.

That kind of heat may not yet be typical, but neither is it unusual; warmer summer temperatures are becoming more common due to climate change. And as temperatures climb, so can utility bills as people attempt to keep cool. This can strain personal budgets — the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that more than a quarter of households already experience some form of energy insecurity.

A household’s ability to pay utility bills can easily be threatened by a high energy burden. By some measures, Kansas City ranks as one of the worst cities on this front, with residents spending almost 6% of their income on energy compared to the national average of 3% to 4%. This can force a choice between paying for electricity or paying for other necessities such as groceries, rent or a mortgage. And for tenants, a utility disconnection may be grounds for eviction.

While everyone is at risk from the dangers of extreme heat, certain groups, including incarcerated people, are more vulnerable than others. And in last month’s Midwest heat wave, many people in Kansas City experienced temperatures as much as 11 degrees warmer than their neighbors due to a heat island effect that corresponds with historically underserved communities.

“We anticipate more people needing cooling assistance this year than last year. And that’s due to the extreme heat that we’re seeing and experiencing across the Midwest and in Kansas City in particular,” said John Rich, executive director of the Mid America Assistance Coalition. “A lot of organizations are trying to keep track of the folks who are shut-in or elderly or disabled and try to get them air conditioners or fans to help keep them cool in the summertime. It’s a pretty vicious time.”

More than mere comfort is at stake. Heat-related illnesses are one of America’s deadliest health outcomes caused by weather. Deaths can result from heat stroke, cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease and cerebrovascular disease. Abnormally hot weather is also associated with kidney stones/failure, adverse consequences for fetal health and preterm birth.

Extreme heat such as that experienced in the recent Midwest heat wave can also have negative psychological effects, said Shawn Holland, a licensed professional counselor with University Health, the academic hospital system.

“As it gets hotter, we tend to feel more irritable and it’s uncomfortable, and so if you already struggle with emotional regulation, then having that extra stressor on you can really lead to harm,” he said. “I think that’s where it trickles down to things like domestic violence and more fights and shootings in neighborhoods.”

The side effects of many medications can be also exacerbated by the extreme heat, Holland added.

People in Kansas City looking for help with paying high utility bills and avoiding dangerously hot temperatures have a number of places to turn for assistance.

Assistance options through Evergy

Evergy, which serves electricity to 1.6 million customers in the Kansas City region, has options available to aid those experiencing energy insecurity. Evergy Connect is a customer support center that offers virtual and in-person meetings to connect people with resources such as payment plans or income-eligible utility payment assistance applications.

One of these payment assistance options includes applying to Missouri’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which offers Energy Assistance, a one-time payment for cooling costs that can total up to $636. A second option under LIHEAP is an Energy Crisis Intervention Program, which awards a maximum of $1,200 for those experiencing financial loss or hardship.

Evergy is also partnering with The Salvation Army on an Economic Relief Pilot Program that provides a credit of up to $65 per month for one year to those with an income at or below 200% of the federal poverty level.

Consumers should also be aware that a Missouri state law protects them from having their electricity shut off due to nonpayment if the local forecasted temperature is predicted to rise above 95 degrees (or a heat index above 105 degrees) on the following day. Evergy chooses to follow these same guidelines in Kansas despite the lack of a similar statewide law.

Despite this, Evergy disconnected 34,928 Missouri households for late payment in 2022, while an additional 82,639 customers were behind on their bills as of the end of last year. To Billy Davies, conservation program coordinator for the Sierra Club Missouri Chapter, those numbers are unacceptable. 

“There’s a lot more work to be done to ensure that no Evergy customer has their electricity involuntarily turned off, regardless of the time of year,” he said. “Evergy could start reporting which ZIP codes are experiencing the highest number of disconnections, and that could enable charitable organizations to better engage these communities. Additionally, Evergy could choose to stop disconnecting people altogether.”

Some longer-term solutions from Evergy are available for those in apartments or homes who are looking to decrease cooling costs by increasing energy efficiency. The Income-Eligible Multi-Family program in Missouri works through custom incentives, no-cost direct installation measures, and rebates to properties that offer subsidized housing or where at least half of residents are at or below 200% federal poverty limit. Evergy also offers homeowners with similar earnings Income Eligible Weatherization that can reduce energy use by up to 35%.

Additional options for assistance

Tenants in Kansas City have access to the city’s Healthy Homes rental inspection program if they believe actions should be taken by their landlords or management companies in order to keep their living space at acceptably cool temperatures. And the Office of the Tenant Advocate, led by Tiffany Drummer, was created to assist renters with a variety of services, including utility assistance.

There are also a number of local nonprofits that make it part of their mission to protect Kansas City residents from the effects of a severe Midwest heat wave. For instance, the Mid America Assistance Coalition processes energy assistance applications and SAVE Inc. works through its Emergency Assistance Program to offer utility assistance for those who are at risk of becoming homeless. 

Homeowners and renters seeking enduring solutions can also turn to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program for assistance in increasing energy efficiency. The program has helped low-income households save an average of $372 per year through improvements and upgrades offered at no charge, among other benefits such as fewer missed work days and lower out-of-pocket medical expenses.

Locally, the program is administered by the Community Action Agency of Greater Kansas City. If you want to access air conditioning outside of your residence, a variety of places around the city offer a place to escape the heat. These include public libraries, community centers and public transportation. And if you want to stay cool outdoors, community pools and spraygrounds are certainly the most enjoyable option.

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Jeremy Fuzy is the digital editor at Word&Way and a contract editor at The Beacon. He holds a Ph.D. from the Missouri School of Journalism and enjoys watching soccer, cycling and canoeing around the...