Missouri heat deaths: 9 confirmed, another 7 reported

Thursday, August 16, 2007

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- An unrelenting August heat wave has killed nine people in Missouri and is the likely cause of another seven deaths, state officials said Thursday.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services said it had confirmed the nine deaths and was working to confirm the other seven. Six of the nine confirmed deaths are from St. Louis city and county. Two are from Jackson County; one is from rural Missouri.

The seven reported heat deaths that have not yet been confirmed are from Jackson County and rural Missouri.

Lori Harris-Franklin, the state's senior epidemiology specialist, said she could not release the heat victims' identities or hometowns.

The heat wave that has blanketed much of the Midwest and Southeast throughout August resulted in two record-breaking temperatures this week in St. Louis -- 103 degrees on Tuesday and 105 Wednesday. The earlier records of 102 and 104 for those days were set in 1936.

The National Weather Service said Thursday an average high and low this time of year is 88 and 69. Nighttime lows of late have been in the 70s. The hot, dry conditions are due to an extended ridge of high pressure that is inhibiting the formation of clouds.

A cold front to the north brought rain and thunderstorms to northeast Missouri and parts of Illinois Thursday, and will bring somewhat cooler temperatures to parts of Missouri this weekend.

Temperatures Friday should reach into the upper 90s, then drop into the mid-90s on Saturday and around 90 on Sunday.

Then, the weather service is predicting another warming trend for early next week.

On Thursday, union and religious leaders held a prayer vigil in front of Ameren Corp.'s St. Louis headquarters to mourn the loss of those who suffered what they called "preventable heat-related deaths."

They also called on Ameren Corp. to impose a "hot-weather rule," meaning it could not shut off electricity to delinquent accounts during the scorching summer months.

None of the St. Louis-area's six heat-related deaths was due to lack of power. Some of the victims lacked air conditioners, but in other cases, the units were on and working or available but turned off. An 87-year-old St. Louis County woman who died Wednesday was using an air conditioner that didn't work properly.

The state's "cold-weather rule" already prevents utilities from cutting off power to customers who fall behind on their bills when the temperature gets below freezing.

Ameren said Thursday it already has a voluntary policy of not shutting off power when temperatures hit the mid-90s.

"Our problem with the mandatory rule is that we found customers (in the winter months) literally stop paying," Ameren spokeswoman Susan Gallagher said. "Their bills mount up and they're in a huge hole when the rule expires."

From November to March, such customers know their heat won't be turned off and they tend not to set up payment arrangements or seek heat energy assistance, Gallagher said.

"It creates a false sense of security, but when March arrives, we end up disconnecting," she said. "It's not beneficial to the very population it's supposed to help."

Eventually, the delinquency has to be covered and it ends up being tacked onto customer rates, Gallagher said.

Ameren said it has given away 450 air conditioners this summer. And since 1982 the company has provided $30 million in energy assistance from Ameren corporate funds and customer donations.

Missouri legislators have unsuccessfully proposed regulations to prevent utilities from electricity shutoffs in high temperatures for those who can't pay. But Missouri regulators who have examined the issue have concluded that there's no need for a hot weather rule.

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On the Net:

Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services: http://www.dhss.mo.gov/

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