Posts from the "Ask for help, lend a hand: Blizzard 2011" website detail problems where elderly residents were unable to dig themselves out. Click to enlarge image
Last week’s historic blizzard left Chicago scrambling to clear Lakeshore Drive, plow main streets and ensure that residents had power and heat. But days after the snow stopped falling and roads were cleared of snow, some elderly residents were still waiting to be dug out of their homes.
While the cities Streets and Sanitation Department worked to remove snow from the streets, no one organization is responsible for looking after the people who live in the houses that line those streets. More than 10 percent of Chicagoans, according to census estimates from 2009, are 65 or over.
Dozens of people posted pleas for assistance on social media sites such as Twitter and the “Ask for help, lend a hand: Blizzard 2011” website set up by the Tribune, WGN and the Chicago Weather Center. New calls for help were still being posted Saturday, when the “Ask for help” site stopped accepting new reports, with messages such as “Entire street completely impassable. Many elderly people live on the block. Please help."
The Senior Services Area Agency on Aging, housed within the Family and Support Services department, collects information on vulnerable residents all year long in preparation for weather emergencies such as last week’s blizzard or a severe heat wave in summertime.
Joyce Gallagher, the Chicago agency’s executive director, said the department has set up a task force of city workers and private companies to look out for seniors who might be in decline or in need of help, but their work is limited by what information people are willing to volunteer.
“If they don’t reach out, we ask the neighbors,” Gallagher said. “It’s physically impossible for us to know where everyone is.”
According to Gallagher, the senior services agency encourages people to self-enroll for a callback program and reaches out to churches and community organizations to keep a closer eye on people who might be at risk in a weather emergency.
“If we know of someone, we can do something. If we know, we will be there,” Gallagher said.
“A lot of people can stay in their homes” as they age if they get proper support, Gallagher said. But “government can only do so much. Everybody knows their neighbors. It’s an indictment on them if we don’t know.”
But one post on the “Ask for help” site, listing an address in the 34th Ward, said snowplows had reburied an elderly man’s car after he had already paid $25 for someone to dig it out.
Neither he nor the woman who assists him in home would give their names, but by Monday, no one had come forward to help him clear it or assist with his garbage.
Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) said she ended up paying young men in her ward to shovel out some of her constituents, but she too relied on people making their needs known.
“I have 60,000 people in my ward, I can’t know every senior,” Austin said. “It’s got to work hand-in-hand with the mechanism I have — the city. When all of those are working together, we can track the seniors.”
“I compile a list of people who call” the ward office, Austin said. “I have a senior club that’s about 125 seniors, and we keep a close eye on those. Now, if I don’t have any way to contact you, I don’t know you’re a senior.”
Austin said her constituents are often hesitant to come forward for help until a disaster hits. “People are ashamed to say [they need help]. People don’t want you digging into their personal lives.”
In the 10th Ward, staff assistant Joe Rodish said all their snow recovery efforts are coordinated internally. One of the largest wards geographically, the 10th carefully collects information on constituents so they can be prepared for weather emergencies.
“Whenever someone comes in, we take their information,” Rodish said. “We do well-being calls whenever weather hits like this.” According to demographic information listed on the ward’s website, more than half of the 10th’s residents are over 65 years old.
Rodish said the ward staff checks the city’s 311 systems every week, and during severe weather, works in 12-hour shifts to answer constituent calls.
“The city does do things,” Rodish said. “But we do everything on our own.”