A Houston woman is urging the District of Houston to place a higher priority on clearing snowbanks from roads and sidewalks following an experience which left her terrified, lost and confused Nov. 24.
Joanne Woodbeck has a degenerative eye condition which has left her completely blind and relying on her guide dog, Jude, a black Labrador, when she goes out for a walk.
Jude’s training is such that she’ll notify Woodbeck of elevation changes between a road and a sidewalk, for instance. And she’ll also warn Woodbeck of obstacles in their way when they are out walking.
Jude’s awareness of their surroundings is honed so that when they come in a corner Jude stops and is awarded by a piece of kibble.
But, says Woodbeck, when they encounter obstacles such as high and long snowbanks, Jude cannot guide Woodbeck through or around them, resulting in the pair easily going off course.
“She just doesn’t know how to get around an obstacle such as that,” said Woodbeck of snowbanks and piled up snow.
That’s what happened Nov. 24 when Woodbeck began what normally is a straight forward two-block journey from the Houston Legion to the Bulkley Valley Credit Union – down 11th from the Legion, through Poulton with a left at Copeland to the credit union on the right.
“At the Legion I do the banking and that’s what takes me to the credit union,” said Woodbeck of her volunteering at the Legion.
Woodbeck and Jude have made that trip enough times that Woodbeck is aware of distances and ground elevation changes as is Jude.
This time though, with accumulated snow confusing Jude, the pair veered off course almost immediately, ending up, for a time, near Brewstir’s and close to Hwy. 16 in a completely different direction from the credit union.
Woodbeck can also use the Siri app on her cellphone but while it can tell her where she is, without a clear reference point and with Jude encountering piled up snow, it cannot provide a path forward.
At one point Woodbeck’s convinced she was near Hwy16.
“I could hear the traffic,” said Woodbeck of the highway noise which compounded her fear and confusion.
“Jude’s very sensitive to me and my situation,” said Woodbeck. “She knew I was upset and when she’s also confused, she’s wondering what she has done wrong.”
She and Jude did come to a stop and that was in front of Brewstir’s at which point owner Dana Miller came out to see if she could help.
“They were just standing there. I asked her if she wanted a ride home but she said ‘no’. She’s a very independent woman,” said Miller.
She did orient Woodbeck as to her location so that she could cross the road and head once again in the right direction.
“We had cleared the sidewalks around our business but when she got across the street, those sidewalks weren’t cleared,” said Miller.
“I know that we had that big dump of snow, but that was a week ago. You’d think they’d have the sidewalks cleared by now,” she added.
Continuing walking and still unsure of where she was, Woodbeck finally decided to stop and call her husband on her cellphone.
“I said come and find me,” said Woodbeck who, by this time, was in tears.
And when her husband did find her, she was kitty corner from the legion, just steps from where she had started her journey.
“He was livid,” said Woodbeck of her husband’s reaction at finding her at that location.
Woodbeck says the District should not plow snow from the roadways onto sidewalks, creating the kind of obstacles she and Jude face.
“My dog and I should be able to walk around this town independently,” she said.
“And it’s not just myself. What about others, people in wheelchairs or who use walkers. They face the same obstacles.”
Snow on sidewalks can also force pedestrians to the roadway, creating a safety issue, Woodbeck adds.
Her suggestion is that snow be cleared from sidewalks along with snow on roadways, and piled in the middle of the road so that equipment can then remove it.
Woodbeck has raised this issue in years past, both with council members and with District of Houston staffers.
She says she either gets no reply or is told “that’s just the way it is.”
“How can that be safe for seniors?” Woodbeck said.
A 2018 revision to the District’s snow-clearing policy did acknowledge the issue of sidewalk clearing.
“…. In previous years the sidewalk plowing has been neglected and staff recommends that this level of service be improved,” notes a memo for council in August 2018.
The recommendation was to move sidewalk clearing to the second priority tier, after the first priority which is clearing streets in the downtown core.
The policy also states it is the responsibility of individual property owners to clear snow from sidewalks adjacent to their property, a policy that is similar to that of other local governments in the region.