Tuesday, Sep 21, 2021

Beyond the Blizzard: Stories of Kiddush Hashem in the Snow

The blizzard of December '10 that socked the New York area with nearly two feet of snow will be recorded in the annals of history as one of the biggest examples of corruption from elected officials, and, conversely, kiddush Hashem. Although stories abound of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Sanitation Department being unplugged, selfishly ignoring the desperate calls for help, even more stories are emerging of the greatness of Am Yisroel. The blizzard wasn't such a whopper as far as blizzards are concerned. In fact, Syracuse, NY, which regularly sees over 100 inches of snow each winter, may scoff at the mere 24 inches that dusted the city. What made the blizzard into such a disaster was the response, or lack of it, from elected officials. Now that the snowstorm is history, and the gleeful kids of Boro Park and Flatbush, who enjoyed a full week of vacation, are back in school, the hidden details emerge - and they aren't pretty.

Whistleblowers within the hierarchy admitted that selfish sanitation bosses deliberately targeted Boro Park and Middle Village in Queens, because residents there are wealthier and have political clout. They were hoping to create a firestorm of protest, which might prevent Mayor Bloomberg’s budget cuts from going through.

 

“It was more targeted than people actually think,” said a labor spokesman. “Boro Park was specifically targeted [because of] . . . its ability to sort of gin up the P.R. machine.” In fact, sanitation department employees were told to clean up the streets near their bosses homes first, to skip certain streets, and even to deliberately break their snowplows in order to prove a point.

 

City Councilman David Greenfield perhaps put it best. He said that the city was divided into “two New Yorks, one for the rich and powerful people in Manhattan who got their snow cleared, and the other for the regular folks in the outer-boroughs who were ignored.”

“I was shocked last night to see a dozen plows parked in the sanitation garage in Boro Park when most of the streets in my community were not even plowed a single time,” Greenfield proclaimed. “I personally went to the garage this morning and was informed that these trucks would not be dispatched because there were not enough employees to drive them.” Greenfield attributes the lack of manpower to Mayor Bloomberg’s personnel reductions at the Department of Sanitation, which left the Department short 400 sanitation workers.

Assemblyman Dov Hikind called the clean-up “an absolute disaster.”

 

“You have the most unbelievable anger I’ve ever seen,” he said.

 

As the blizzard began to unleash its fury last Sunday afternoon, December 26, thousands of people were stranded on the streets. Cars were quickly abandoned in the drifts, making it impossible for emergency vehicles to get through. As usually happens in a big city, emergencies began to pile up, and ambulances were trapped in the snow. Emergency responses were delayed for hours, while backup crews tried to dig out their wheels.

 

For the first time in many years, even decades, the supermarkets were out of basic products. “My local store had no milk, no bread,” said one Boro Park mother. “With the garbage piled high and the streets filled with snowdrifts, it felt like a war zone.”

 

For the K. family, who had a simcha in Monsey on Sunday night, their journey home to Williamsburg took about twelve hours. “We couldn’t travel on the Garden State Parkway, which was closed, so we took the Tappan Zee Bridge, but got stuck on the snowy roads until morning. Luckily, we had heat, food and water, and we watched Jewish videos to pass the time. We left Monsey at about 11 p.m. and walked into our homes at 11 in the morning.”

 

A chosson and kallah who got married in a local hall spent the night in the yichud room, while the guests bunked in the hall on the chairs, until the roads were cleared and they could get home safely. Talk about a memorable start to the rest of their lives!

 

Yidden opened their homes to perfect strangers, giving them food and shelter for the night as they waited for the storm to abate. Though for most people it was a real inconvenience, for nursing mothers separated from their babies the blizzard was a nightmare. Hatzolah got dozens of calls from frantic mothers who couldn’t spend the night away from their children. They tried to help wherever they could, but were busy responding to life-threatening emergencies on the roads.

 

In the midst of all this chaos, Reb Mayer Berger, devoted askan of Chesed Shel Emes, a renowned organization that brings niftarim to kever Yisroel, and his fellow askanim rolled into action. In an exclusive interview with the Yated, Reb Mayer related the harrowing three days and nights — literally – that he and the rest of the members spent on the streets helping pull people to safety. Reb Mayer relates his adventures matter-of-factly, without undue fanfare, simply relating how the storm brought out the best, and the worst, in people.

 

Q: So how did you spend the few days since the snowfall hit?

 

Reb Mayer Berger: Well, the snow started falling on Sunday afternoon. Fortunately, I have a four-wheel-drive truck, which came to good use. The adventure began when I went out on Sunday night to Maariv. I immediately realized that there was near zero visibility, as the snow was still falling heavily.

 

On my way home from Maariv, I found two stranded people waiting for a city bus that never showed up. As I drove them home to 18th Avenue, I realized why the roads were impassible: there were abandoned cars on nearly every street blocking traffic in their path. In order to drive them home, I had to take a roundabout route, driving down four streets to get to one avenue. As soon as I dropped them off, I got a call about a paramedic who was stuck. I tied his car to my truck and pulled him out of the snow. Five minutes later, there was another Hatzolah ambulance stuck in a snowdrift; it took a bit longer to pull him out.

 

At this point, it was well past midnight and I was exhausted. But then I got a phone call about a niftar in a private home who needed to be brought to Shomrei Hadas Chapels. Getting to the niftar’s house was difficult, but reaching Shomrei Hadas was impossible. The snow was waist high! Another member and I were forced to put the niftar on a board, which served as a makeshift sled, and carry him in the streets to the chapel.

 

By now it was late at night, but another call came through: there was a nifteres in Maimonides who needed to be transferred. Again, the same story. We had to carry the stretcher to the chapel, dodging the blinding snow.

 

Early on Monday morning, another call came in. There were 15 people stranded in Lutheran Hospital. They had been en route for hours, trying to get home from a simcha in Williamsburg. When they left the hall, around midnight, they realized that it was impossible to drive. So they took a subway to Manhattan, their only option, then another train to Brooklyn, and finally, the subway went until 2nd Avenue, where they were dropped off near the hospital. By the time we – I was joined by a partner got to them, they had been en route for nearly twelve hours! It took us another hour and a half to drive them home to Boro Park, going through the Prospect Expressway.

 

The scene was surreal. It had stopped snowing, but snowdrifts and abandoned vehicles littered the streets. On the way back home, we got another call: We were sent right back to Lutheran to pick up a niftar, who was booked on a flight for kevurah in Eretz Yisroel, one of the few flights that weren’t cancelled. So back we went to Lutheran, and then to JFK. When we arrived in Boro Park, we heard that the medical examiner’s truck was stuck in the snow, on its way to another niftar, so we dug him out.

 

Later that night, just as I was about to fall into bed, came another phone call: A Jewish police officer worked in a dangerous section of East New York. His supervisor insisted that he show up for his shift, snow or no snow. Of course, his car got stuck in a terrible neighborhood, and he was afraid to abandon it. We drove to his location, helped him out of the snowdrift, and made sure he was on his way to safety.

 

On our way back, we encountered a shocking scene. An ambulance was stalled, and one of the paramedics was literally carrying the patient in his arms, on the way to the hospital. The man had broken his leg, and the ambulance was blocked! We took him to the hospital, and then headed for home. But our day wasn’t finished. Chesed Shel Emes was notified about an eight-year-old boy from a secular home who was niftar in a fire. We picked up the niftar and took him to the chapel.

 

The next morning, Chesed Shel Emes got a call from an askan at Maimonides. There was no food in the Bikur Cholim room. Actually, there was no food in the entire hospital, we later heard. The regular deliveries never arrived, and the cooks and kitchen staff were unable to show up. I hear that Yad Ephraim, a tremendous organization, literally took over Maimonides for two days! They cooked all the meals in their own kitchens, personally delivered and served the foods, and even sent volunteers as backup personnel in the emergency rooms. Mi ke’amcha Yisroel!

 

The streets were no better on Tuesday, when we drove a volunteer to 13th Avenue and picked up 75 containers of yogurt, 18 cases of Danishes, cases of sandwiches from Sandwich Express, drinks, and whatever they needed. Then we delivered the shipment to the hospital, to stock up the Bikur Cholim room.

 

Throughout our two days of nonstop driving on the roads, pulling people out, we had no plan. We simply did what we had to do. Every minute, we encountered another emergency, another stalled ambulance or frantic patient. I hear that Hatzolah was very busy too. They delivered a total of 27 babies during the storm. One woman gave birth in an ambulance. The mother and baby were carried on a stretcher for several blocks to the hospital when the ambulance got stuck in the snow.

 

The stories of chassodim that emerged from the blizzard could fill a book. Someone I know walked twenty blocks to his stranded friend in a section of Brooklyn, bringing him food and warm clothes. Chaveirim and other organizations were out in full force, sometimes 24 hours straight, to come to people’s assistance. It was a tremendous kiddush Hashem.

 

Q: In your opinion, was the Sanitation Department to blame for the fiasco?

 

To a large extent, yes. The Mayor claimed that he couldn’t send out the snowplows, because it was too dangerous. Let me tell you something. It was far more dangerous for emergency vehicles, but none of them stayed home! A snowplow operates at speeds of about fifteen miles an hour. There was about thirty feet visibility during the storm. That’s more than enough for the snowplows to safely operate. But even more important than the snowplows were the tow-trucks needed to drag abandoned cars out of the streets and allow the ambulances to go through.

 

Neither the snowplows nor the tow-trucks came near Boro Park on the night of the snow. It took nearly a week, during which the city was at a standstill, for the roads to be cleared. That’s simply inexcusable. Boro Park and Williamsburg looked like a third-world country.

 

Q: Did people lose their lives?

 

Of course. The statistics are only being published now. The city reported that there was a three-hour delay for heart attack patients, and a twelve-hour delay for asthma attacks. Both of these can be dangerous, often fatal. And what of the 100 accidents where ambulances simply never showed up, because they couldn’t get through? It defies description. And then there was the poor baby from Queens who had a seizure and was declared brain dead by the time the ambulance took him to the hospital. It was a nightmare, the likes of which we’ve never seen before.

 

Reb Mayer is modest about the praise due to Chesed Shel Emes, who, he claims, were only doing their jobs. They were joined by the devoted volunteers of Hatzolah, Misaskim, Chaveirim and countless individual Yidden who gave up their sleep, their time and energy to help fellow Jews.

 

One of my friends was out on the streets from when the snow started falling until Tuesday afternoon. I don’t know when he slept. All I can tell you is that whenever I called him, no matter the time of day or night, he was on the roads. This snowstorm truly brought out the best in Klal Yisroel. With such tremendous chassodim, can the geulah be far away?

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