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Energy and Environment

Mapleton Residents Left Without Heat As They Wait For Federal Grant

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Stephen Koranda
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Residents in the tiny, southeast Kansas town of Mapleton are closely watching the temperatures as they fall into the 50s and 40s this time of year. That's because many of their homes don’t have heat. The city lost its natural gas service earlier this year.

Mapleton received a federal grant to help residents update their heating systems, but as Stephen Koranda reports, the process has been moving slowly. That has some residents wondering if they’ll be left out in the cold.

Kelly Oharah opens a door and shows me around her large, older home in Mapleton, Kansas, where she lives with her three children.

“There are three bedrooms upstairs with a very large bathroom, it’s about as big as my bedroom, actually,” says Oharah.

The small natural gas company that once provided heat for her and others in the area shut down. The city of Mapleton applied for a federal grant that would pay to convert homes to propane heat. The grant was awarded June 1st, but so far the update hasn’t happened.

“I thought it was going to be done over the summer. I figured by now it’d be completed with everybody,” says Oharah.

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Credit Stephen Koranda
Kelly Oharah

Kelly is on disability and she can’t afford to pay for the upgrade herself. She has an app on her phone that she uses to check the weather.

“I kind of just keep watch and when the weather’s a little chilly we all stay in my bedroom and turn the space heater on,” says Oharah.

Jerry and Mary Fay Lalman live nearby and are in a similar situation. Mary Fay says they already paid to convert some of their appliances to propane themselves, but they won’t be reimbursed under the grant.

“We couldn’t go without our stove and our hot water, we didn’t want to without that,” says Lalman.

They’re waiting for the grant to pay to update their furnace, which they think could cost thousands of dollars. So their heat right now? They point to a space heater in the living room.

“Right there behind you. We’ve got two of them. It ain’t much, but as long as it don’t get very cold it don’t take much,” says Lalman.

Even by Kansas standards, Mapleton is a small community. Fewer than 100 people live here, but it does have a city government. Two of the city council members and the mayor couldn’t be reached for comment. Others didn’t respond to messages. When reached by phone, council member Arlene Shafer wouldn’t comment on the grant or on the amount of time it’s taking.

Rumors have been circulating that somehow, the grant could be jeopardized if city council members spoke to the media. The Kansas Department of Commerce, which is administering the grant, says that’s not accurate.

Commerce officials did respond to questions on the grant and how long it’s taking.

“The city and the grant administrators are working as quickly as possible to try and get the work completed in as brief a time span as possible while still meeting all the requirements set out,” says Matt Keith.

That’s Matt Keith, a spokesperson for the Kansas Commerce Department. He says a federal grant comes with requirements. They had to get an environmental review. They had to take bids from contractors on actually doing the work. It just takes time, and they have to make sure it’s all handled properly.

“Being done efficiently and being done in a way that best serves the interests of the community, and that’s why all the guidelines are in place, to really make sure that this money is used to maximum possible effect within the communities that the grants serve,” says Keith.

Keith says this is a normal amount of time for a community grant like this.

But that still leaves Kelly Oharah watching the weather and wondering if she’ll have to go stay with relatives before her heat is updated.

“It causes me stress, it bothers me a lot that I might not be able to stay at my house, even. I might have to go stay somewhere else while we wait for this conversion to happen,” says Oharah.

A contractor has now been selected to do the work, so residents are hoping the updates will happen soon.