“We really tried to plan ahead. My husband napped during the afternoon, he filled up with gas, and we set out early. Already on the way to the chasunah, we realized that visibility on the highway was close to zero, and we were being directed by the taillights of the cars ahead of us. Looking back, I’m wondering if we shouldn’t have just turned around and gone back home. It really was sakonas nefashos to be out there.”
Ari and Chaya made it to the chasunah in about an hour. Chaya reports that guests were arriving all night long, as the baalei simcha tried to rent busses and stretch hummers to bring people in from outlying areas. Little did they know that the nightmare was only beginning.
“We left the chasunah at about ten fifteen, and found tons of people stranded in the streets of Williamsburg because the buses to Boro Park were just not running,” she said. “We had an SUV, so we hoped for the best. We also took as many passengers as we could fit.”
Traveling on the BQE was slow and treacherous, but at least it was moving. Until they reached Atlantic Avenue.
“I can’t begin to describe it,” says Chaya. “It was like a giant parking lot. Cars were stuck and facing every possible direction. People had abandoned their cars all along the highway and nobody could get through. We sat there for hours.”
The worst part, according to Chaya, is that there were no emergency personnel taking charge of the situation. “No police, no firemen…there was nothing! We tried calling 311, but we were on hold for hours. We listened to the radio constantly, but they didn’t give us directions either. And so we sat there, hour after hour.”
At 4:30 a.m., they finally got off the highway, but their problems were far from over. Turning up 60th Street, they found another line-up of abandoned vehicles. “We couldn’t go forward,” says Chaya, “and we couldn’t go backwards. It was freezing cold outside. Our passengers were tired and hungry. My husband got out and checked all the side streets and each one had the same problem. There was simply nowhere to go.”
The only solution seemed to be to abandon their vehicle, like hundreds of others, and walk the considerable distance to their home. The problem was that one of their passengers had forgotten to wear boots and it was impossible for her to walk in the snow, which was already close to two feet high. Chaya refused to leave her there alone. By now, it was already daylight.
In the end, Ari’s and Chaya’s young children saved the day. “Our boys, who are nine and thirteen years old, woke up early and saw that we never came home. They tried not to panic and called to find out what happened.”
Seeing no choice in the matter, Chaya instructed her boys to fill up a bag with hats, scarves, gloves and boots and walk over to them. “They showed up twenty minutes later with the snow up to their waists!” says Chaya.
Ari pulled the car over so as not to obstruct other traffic. The entire entourage walked twenty or thirty blocks to their respective homes. Upon entering her own home at nine o’clock in the morning, Chaya sat down, exhausted and grateful to be safe and sound. When her sister called her a few moments later, her son answered the phone. “You won’t believe this!” he said. “Mommy’s eating breakfast in her chasunah dress!”
“The World Has Not Come To An End”
It wasn’t the worst snowstorm in New York City history, but many felt it definitely was the worst as far as response from the city’s emergency services.
Here are the facts: Eighteen to twenty inches of snow fell in Brooklyn from Sunday afternoon through Monday morning. High winds caused snow drifts of up to four feet high in some places. All three area airports were closed, with 1,400 flights cancelled. LIRR services were suspended, and Amtrak cancelled its train service from New York City to Maine. Mass transit was either severely delayed or at a standstill.
Over 2,400 sanitation workers in 12-hour shifts tried to clear the city’s 6,000 miles of snow-clogged streets. Only, they weren’t doing much of a good job of it, and many New Yorkers were frustrated and angry.
According to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office, the biggest problem was that motorists had abandoned their vehicles all along the streets of the city. This prevented Hatzolah and other emergency vehicles that were equipped for the snow from navigating their way through the streets.
But others are not satisfied with that excuse. By Tuesday morning, many of Brooklyn’s streets were still not plowed. Abandoned vehicles still blocked major roadways. And there were a lot of angry New Yorkers.
State Senator Carl Kruger, who represents Brooklyn, called it “a colossal failure.”
Councilman David Greenfield, who represents Boro Park, Bensonhurst and Midwood, said, “I am disgusted at the lack of clean-up in the outer boroughs.”
Councilman Steven Levin, who represents Williamsburg, said, “It is unacceptable that, a full day after the storm, major avenues throughout my district have yet to see a snow plow.”
And Assemblyman Dov Hikind of Brooklyn simply asked, “Mr. Mayor, where are you?”
As it turned out, the Mayor was trying to work out the problems. At a Tuesday morning press conference, he defended himself by saying, “Because the snow fell so quickly in such great amounts and the wind blew so forcefully, many motorists left their vehicles in the middle of the street.”
He said that so far, the NYPD had removed close to a thousand stranded vehicles and over 2,000 sanitation workers were working long and hard to get the streets cleaned.
“Until we can pull out the buses, ambulances, and private cars that are stranded,” Bloomberg explained, “the plows can’t do anything. We still have a long way to go.” He called it “probably the biggest snow cleanup this city has ever seen.”
The Mayor requested that New Yorkers, especially those in the outer boroughs, remain calm and patient. “It is a bad situation,” he said, “and we are trying to correct it.” On the other hand, he said, “I don’t think we should think the end of the world is here. We will make mistakes, but we will continue to plug ahead. Yelling and complaining just won’t help.”
Mi Ke’amcha Yisroel
Meanwhile, volunteers and baalei chesed in our community were doing whatever they could to help. Volvie, a Flatbush Hatzolah member, was up all night on Sunday trying to transport patients to hospitals, a task that was close to impossible considering that most side streets were blocked.
“It was unbelievable,” he says. “At one point, we had to bring an 83-year-old woman, who was suffering from a possible stroke, to the hospital. Ocean Parkway wasn’t passable. We had to park our vehicle on the other side of the avenue and six of us had to carry her in the deep snow to the ambulance.”
Stories like this one prompted Hatzolah’s Emergency Command Center to release this message to the public at 4:30 a.m.: “Do not attempt to drive your vehicle. This is preventing Hatzolah from responding to life-saving emergencies!”
While some Hatzolah vehicles are equipped with chains, that didn’t help either. “We burnt through four sets of chains on Sunday night,” says a Hatzolah spokesman. “We were more successful with private SUVs of some of our members.”
There were several labor and delivery calls that evening as well, he says, but they all made it to the hospital, even if it wasn’t the hospital of their choice.
“At times like these, our emergency responders go above and beyond the call of duty, and Hatzolah is proud of its members, many of whom were out all night,” said the Hatzolah spokesman. “In Flatbush alone, twenty to thirty volunteers worked nonstop until the morning. The same happened in Boro Park. We had guys up all night keeping as many ambulances as possible running.”
The Chaveirim hotline was also inundated with calls all night long. According to one dispatcher, “I could write a book about what went on that night. We had a 94-year-old woman who was stranded after a wedding, nursing mothers who were desperate to get back to their babies, and people sitting at train stations for hours. Hundreds and hundreds of calls came in. In most cases, there was really nothing we could do.”
Tzedakah and Tehillim Saved the Day
Mindy and her family were planning a day at the mall on Sunday, not realizing that they were headed out to New Jersey at a time when the weatherman was advising that people should stay home.
“We left at 11:30,” she said, “and no storm was happening yet.”
But when they left the mall at 5:30, they realized that they were in trouble.
“We were seven adults and one baby in a minivan,” says Mindy, “and my father was driving. It was treacherous. Wherever we went, people were skidding out of control. We couldn’t see ahead of us, because the wind was blowing the snow in every direction. My father had to stick his head out the window in order to see where he was going.”
The minivan was running out of gas, and they began cruising the streets of a small Jersey city searching for a gas station. When they finally found one and filled up, they discovered that their minivan was stuck.
“It was in middle of some small town,” says Mindy, “with nobody to help us. We sat in the car for four hours with no bathroom and a screaming baby.”
They tried calling AAA and emergency services, but nobody responded. They stopped strangers in the street, offering money, but nobody would help.
It was then that the family decided to turn to the Ribono Shel Olam for help.
“We realized that we weren’t alone,” says Mindy. “Hashem is always with us no matter what. So we all started saying Tehillim together out loud. And then we called the Kupat Ha’ir hotline and pledged a donation. We explained our situation and asked that Rav Chaim Kanievsky give us a bracha to come out of this b’shalom. They asked for everyone’s names so that they can send a list to Rav Chaim.”
Amazingly, about ten minutes after pledging tzedakah, Mindy’s petite sister decided to try her luck one more time at digging the car out of the snow. “We were thinking it’s never going to work. We were telling her to forget about it. But it turned out to be a miracle. She managed to push the snow away from the tires and we were able to move the car!”
Mindy’s family still had a harrowing journey ahead of them, including spending hours on the Verrazano Bridge, but they knew that Hashem was with them. “There were times that we were nervous,” says Mindy, “but we felt His presence. We got home thirteen hours after we left the mall, but we were all safe and sound. We look back now and think, ‘Wow. If we can get through this, we can get through anything.’”
The snow emergency will eventually settle, and things will get back to normal for most of us over the next few days. But looking back at the crisis and the harrowing experiences that some members of our community faced, several people offered their advice for the future.
According to a Chaveirim dispatcher, “In this kind of weather, avoid going out. Older people especially should stay indoors. Also, if you have elderly neighbors or friends who may be in a difficult condition, check on them. You don’t need to be an official member of an organization to help out,” he said.
Gedalya Jacobowitz, caterer at several Brooklyn chasunah halls, noted that members of our community often make an extra effort to attend weddings and simchos during snowstorms and bad weather. “We usually have a high attendance during very bad weather,” he said. “People feel that if they don’t show up, maybe no one else will either.”
Still, many emergency volunteers urged us to inform the public that those who are elderly, who may have medical issues, or who have young children waiting at home should perhaps think twice before deciding to attend a simcha in hazardous conditions. There were also several baalei simcha as well as organizations who chose to postpone special events to make it easier and safer for the rest of us.
For people like Chaya and Mindy, this week’s blizzard will be remembered for a long time as a traumatic experience. For others, it will be remembered simply as a major inconvenience. Either way, the people we spoke to were filled with hakoras hatov for all the dedicated baalei chesed in our community who showed such care and dedication during this crisis.
“The chesed that came out of this,” says Mindy, “was simply amazing.”