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Confronting bitter weather, Midwest mayors address help for vulnerable citizens

January 6, 2014 at 12:00 AM EDT
Gwen Ifill talks to Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay about the precautions they are taking in their cities and what special help they offer for citizens like the elderly and the impoverished who may be in greater danger during this winter chill.

GWEN IFILL: Double-digit temperatures probably sound good right now to both of our guests, a pair of mayors who are dealing with the very real impact of this in their cities: Betsy Hodges from Minneapolis and Francis Slay of St. Louis. 

Welcome to you both.

Mayor Hodges, you’re known as being pretty tough people in Minnesota.  Is this as bad as you have ever seen it? 

MAYOR BETSY HODGES, Minneapolis:  You know, it hasn’t been this cold in many years in Minneapolis. 

But we — we know how to handle it here in Minneapolis.  We have been preparing for quite some time, especially given we know the impact climate change will have on our city over time. 

GWEN IFILL:  Well, Mayor Slay, let me ask you the same question.  They’re pretty tough in Minneapolis, but St. Louis, you don’t think of as being a place that is weather-stricken like this. 

MAYOR FRANCIS SLAY, St. Louis:  Yes, this is a very unusual weather event. 

It’s not so of the amount of snow we received.  It’s the bitter cold.  We haven’t had subzero highs, temperatures, for many, many years in St. Louis, so it’s been very, very dangerous.  But we have — our biggest concerns have been, our oldest, our youngest, our — most low-income residents as well as our homeless residents in St. Louis. 

GWEN IFILL:  Mayor Hodges, you’re the pro.  Tell us, how do you prepare for something like this? 

BETSY HODGES:  Well, I mean, certainly, you know, we encourage folks, if they need to, to stay in.  The governor canceled schools statewide.  Our school system is also going to be shut tomorrow.  In our city, we have delayed garbage collection for a day. 

The folks who work outside, we need to make sure they have the protections that they need, especially our first-responders.  You know, we make sure they have the protection they need, but they are heroes.  And they are doing their jobs in this cold. 

GWEN IFILL:  How do residents respond to this?  Do they just say, oh, it’s — it’s cold, we know what cold is in January in Minnesota, and go about their business, or do they take this more seriously this time? 

BETSY HODGES:  I think it’s both.  You know, people take it seriously, but we know how to handle it.  And so we — you know, our protocols come into play.  There’s a lot of phrases like, oh, it’s very brisk outside.  It’s very brisk. 


GWEN IFILL:  Brisk sounds like it is an understatement.

Mayor Slay, you also have to worry, as you pointed out, by the most vulnerable among you.  Do you have homeless considerations that you have to take into effect, people who don’t have shelter? 


And we have opened up emergency overflow shelters and we have got a lot of organizations here in St. Louis who have been working together, St. Louis City, St. Louis County.  And it has been very, very successful.  We have not turned anyone down. 

The numbers are up.  But they seem to be — people that are attending these have been very comfortable and seem to be very satisfied.  I visited one of those shelters today.  The other thing we’re doing is, for our homeless seniors — our homebound seniors, who may not have someone checking on them, we have a functional needs registry, where we call thousands of these homebound seniors to see how they’re doing. 

If we don’t hear back from them, we check on them.  So we’re out checking on them as well.  And certainly we’re concerned about our lowest-income residents, who have problems with their utility bills.  We do have an organization, Heat Up St. Louis, where if someone can’t pay their utility bills, it’s a private organization that will help pay those bills for them, so they can keep their heat on and keep their family safe. 

GWEN IFILL:  Mayor Hodges, same question to you.  How do you take — do you take special precautions to deal with the most vulnerable among you? 

BETSY HODGES:  Absolutely, we do. 

I mean, the biggest thing we need to do is get the word out to people that this is happening and what services are available and are provided to them.  We have a very robust program for working with homeless folks.  And we need — you know, we make sure that they get what they need as well. 

And kids, you know, I mean, the schools were canceled because we don’t want kids waiting out in the cold.  We don’t want, you know, the danger to hit them, if we can.  But like I said, we’re pretty hearty people.  This is not unusual for us.  We have been preparing for weather events like this for many, many years, and people are pretty familiar with what needs to be done. 

GWEN IFILL:  Do you have — are you hoping for, are you counting on the prospect of warmth any time soon, Mayor Hodges? 

BETSY HODGES:  Well, it sounds like we’re going to be warming up into the 20s or the 30s this weekend, which is about 50 or 60 degrees warmer than it is now, so that sounds pretty good to folks around here. 

GWEN IFILL:  How about you, Mayor Slay? 

FRANCIS SLAY:  Warm weather is on its way.  We will be in the 20s tomorrow.  It looks like, by Wednesday, it will be up in the 30s, and by the weekend, it could be up to 50 degrees. 

So we’re looking at some pretty quick thawing.  But, in the meantime, it’s still going to be very dangerous, and our street crews and others are out cleaning the streets still.  It is still going to be dangerous for people to drive.  So, they have got to be careful, they have got to safe, they have got to smart and be very patient. 

GWEN IFILL:  Mayor Slay, we wish you thawing in St. Louis.

And, Mayor Hodges, stay out of the briskness in Minnesota.

Thank you so much. 


BETSY HODGES:  Thank you very much. 

FRANCIS SLAY:  Thank you. 

BETSY HODGES:  Thank you.