Heat wave hardest on nation's poor

Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Seth Perlman ~ Associated PressJames Williams carries a fan handed out Monday by Catholic Charities to those in need of heat relief in Springfield, Ill.

HORIZON CITY, Texas -- The cinder blocks that make up Maria Teresa Escamilla's new home will do little to shield her from the triple-digit heat that has been scorching West Texas. She has no electricity yet, and the roof is not properly attached, leaving the interior exposed to the elements.

Escamilla has been living in an air-conditioned apartment that she can no longer afford. But when the lease ends in two weeks, she has to move -- a day she dreads because it means she'll have no escape from the searing temperatures.

"This is what I have to look forward to," she said. There will be no air conditioning and an unbearable number of mosquitoes at night.

With much of the nation in the grip of a broiling heat wave, few people are hit as hard as the poor, and few places are poorer than the ramshackle communities along the Texas-Mexico border known as "colonias."

The misery was widespread Monday, with the worst conditions blanketing a broad band from Texas to Minnesota and Dakotas. Seventeen states issued heat watches, warnings or advisories. And the heat index easily surpassed 100 degrees in many places: 126 in Newton, Iowa; 120 in Mitchell, S.D.; and 119 in Madison, Minn.

The high temperatures were nearly certain to persist for the entire week. Forecasters expected the extreme discomfort to spread soon to the East Coast.

In towns large and small, the withering heat was cruelest to those who could not afford air conditioning.

Built at the edge of the desert, the colonias often lack electricity and running water.

People bought the land before zoning regulations were adopted, hoping that utility services would follow.

To finance her house, Escamilla, who is 62, had to take out a loan against her funeral and buy building materials recycled from demolition sites in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso.

Norma Salazar, who shares a tiny trailer home with her husband and six children in Horizon City, on the outskirts of El Paso, has to rely on an evaporative cooler, a cheap alternative to air conditioning that sucks the hot, dry desert air through a mesh of water-soaked fibers.

But it only cools half of the trailer, and when the heat climbs above 100, not even that.

"When it gets really hot, we turn on the fans and stay inside," Salazar said.

Going to a library or a mall to keep cool is not an option because the car doesn't have air conditioning.

"So getting there is even worse than just staying inside, not moving," she added.

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