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St. Paul’s mayor reflects on added stresses of severe cold for families

January 27, 2014 at 6:10 PM EDT
The deep freeze over much of the United States forced state and local governments to take precautions to ensure public safety, including closing schools. Judy Woodruff talks to Mayor Chris Coleman of St. Paul, Minn., about how his city is faring and how the extreme weather affects families and others who depend on services.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: The deep freeze settling in over much of the country is forcing state and local officials to take precautions once again to protect people from dangerous subzero conditions. That included the state of Minnesota, where schools were closed today. In Saint Paul, the day began with temperatures of 23 degrees below zero.

Chris Coleman is the mayor of Saint Paul, and he joins us from the Twin Cities.

Welcome, Mr. Mayor.

Tell us, how is this severe cold affecting your area?

MAYOR CHRIS COLEMAN, D-Saint Paul, Minn.: Well, this is quite a stretch of cold weather. This is the seventh day in the last five years that schools have been closed. And five of those days have occurred in January.

We have had to take precautions with how we treat emergency response calls, sending out firefighters with ambulances in case somebody has to leave their home and go out in the cold. We have extended rec center time so that kids have a place to go where they’re warm and safe.

Just really, you know, we just — we urge people to be very cautious when the weather gets this cold.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So have people been able to stay safe and out of the cold?

CHRIS COLEMAN: Well, we certainly have had some incidents. We have had some really unfortunate incidents where people have been less than cautious and found themselves caught outside. It’s a lot of kind of tragic situations.

But I think that people — you know, we’re used to this in Minnesota. It is not — it hasn’t been this cold for a long time but, for those of us that remember longer stretches of cold weather, just be cautious, be safe and put on an extra layer clothing if you are going outside.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, with closing schools, I know that has a big effect on families. What are the wider effects of that? I know there are a lot of children who — whose parents count on them being in schools. Many kids depend on schools for nutritious meals.

CHRIS COLEMAN: Right.

This is very hard on families. Whether you are a family that, as you say, is kind of dependent upon those school services that are provided or you’re a parent that doesn’t have extended sick leave time or personal time that has to stay home unpaid, it can really have kind of a double-whammy for families.

And so we’re very cautious. And the decision to close schools that the superintendent ultimately makes, but consults with me on, is one that is not taken lightly, and with full understanding of the implications for families. We’re at the point, though, now, where if — we will close the schools one more day tomorrow. It’s supposed to warm up a little bit on Wednesday. But beyond this, we will have to extend the school year, actually, into June, if we, in fact, cancel school anymore this year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how much do you worry? We mentioned school meals at school lunch and so forth. How much do you — are you concerned about children missing that because of school closings?

CHRIS COLEMAN: Well, it really is — it’s an unfortunate situation, you know. And it’s kind of part of this whole picture. In the old days, when it got this cold, we didn’t necessarily close schools. But we see more and more kids that don’t have resources, don’t have proper clothing, so that if they do get caught out on a street corner, it becomes a much more dangerous situation.

Parents don’t necessarily have cars to transport those children or their cars are suspect and may not start. So you combine that with nutrition, you combine that with, in many instances — and we know this to be the case — where parents don’t have a choice but to go to work.

And so children are at home that may be are a little bit younger than should be left at home. There are a lot of concerns that we have when a situation like this occurs, and especially now the fifth time in a month, where the strain on families is really strong.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A lot to juggle.

Mayor, Mayor Chris Coleman of Saint Paul, we thank you for talking with us. And good luck with dealing with all of this.

CHRIS COLEMAN: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you.

CHRIS COLEMAN: Thank you very much.