A storm that would not have stopped the mailman in other parts of the country last week sent the state of Texas into a state of emergency. Winter Storm Uri crippled the state with power, phone and internet outages (and a resulting lack of warm shelter), plus plus water and food shortages for millions of residents. In the storm’s wake, recovery efforts are ongoing – but the physical and emotional impacts of the disaster resonate like the chorus of a somber country ballad.
Senior Planet Steps Up
Staff from Senior Planet San Antonio are lending a hand where they can while the damage and devastation is still being quantified. Power and water are back for most San Antonians. For some, when the power went out, the water pumps followed, and entire waterway systems froze. Far too many people lost their homes to fires and water damage.
On Monday, Senior Planet San Antonio Program Lead DeAnne Cuellar drove a jeep in a caravan to deliver pallets of water and food to a women’s shelter in San Antonio. “I practice radical social distancing and have barely left my house during the COVID-19 pandemic,” she explains, “but all of a sudden there is an undeniable sense of urgency and you don’t think twice. I had to go out and help out my community and find a breath of air from the emotional toll that this disaster has taken.”
Similar to the COVID-19 pandemic, the storm also put older Texans at higher risk. Senior Planet trainer Pat Jasso, 69, says that at first, the snow was beautiful – until her electricity shut off overnight, while temperatures outside continued to drop below freezing. Luckily, she was able to find warmth at her daughter’s house, located just a few blocks away and connected to a different power grid. “My situation was not as bad as others,” says Jasso, “but if I hadn’t had the resources to stay at my daughters’ house, I would have been very worried.”
“The digital divide was exacerbated by the winter storm,” says Senior Planet online trainer Phyllis Viagran. She had power (and taught a class) because her source was an essential grid, but others were not so lucky. Only two out of the regular seventeen attendees joined the class; one student had no power, the other had intermittent power. “I shared with them about what the news was saying about rolling blackouts and more severe weather. I was happy to be on the line for them and be a connection to the news and weather reports.”
With temperatures now rising across the state, hope and recovery is in sight. Cuellar says that the San Antonio community seems focused on two main things: controlling electricity bills (which ballooned during the emergency) and making sure people can apply for recovery benefits from FEMA, grant programs, and homeowner’s insurance.
However, both the impact of Winter Storm Uri and the recovery are more difficult for underserved populations such as people of color and low-income individuals. In the aftermath of one of the worst winter storms in Texas history, Senior Planet is stepping up with hands-on volunteers like State Program Director DeAnne Cuellar. We’re also helping Texas (and other areas) through our own specialized focus: through technology – the most effective way to get help and access resources – with a program called Aging Connected.
In the United States, there are nearly 22 million older adults who do not have wireline broadband at home. Race is a strong predictor, with Latinos and Blacks disproportionately experiencing higher rates of nonparticipation, according to the Aging Connected report: Exposing the Hidden Connectivity Crisis for Older Adults. Aging Connected is meant to help bridge that gap.
What can you do?
Starting February 24, Texas seniors can call 311, and press 5 for the disaster relief center launching that same day. Operators will be available to help older adults apply for all of the emergency resources available from the city and FEMA. There’s even a fund for plumbing and fixing pipes.
Follow AARP Texas state office’s social media account for updates and information about advocacy efforts, here: https://twitter.com/AARPTX
Read the AARP Texas state office’s blog post about available resources here: https://states.aarp.org/texas/in-aftermath-of-winter-storm-resources-are-available
Photo caption: City Councilman Roberto C. Treviño’s office hosted a community-wide distribution of water and essential goods for families in San Antonio.