The city that never sleeps was brought to a virtual standstill this week as a blizzard dumped nearly two feet of snow on the New York metropolitan area – and countless miles of streets remained unplowed and all but impassable several days after the flakes stopped falling.
Irate New Yorkers did not take kindly to the slow pace of the city’s cleanup efforts and inundated their local officials with phone calls demanding to know when their streets would finally be cleared.
Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind called for the resignation of New York City Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty, saying “this lack of response is nothing less than criminal.”
Hikind said he was appalled to discover that the funeral of a friend’s mother had to be postponed – despite the Jewish tradition of burying the deceased as soon as possible – because of the dismal street conditions.
City Councilman David Greenfield blasted Mayor Michael Bloomberg for clearing the streets in Manhattan while ignoring the city’s outer boroughs. Greenfield described himself as astonished to discover that twelve snow plows were sitting, unused, in the Boro Park sanitation garage on 19th Avenue, because the Department of Sanitation did not have enough employees available to drive them due to personnel cuts made by the mayor.
“Why in the world does the city buy trucks and not hire people to drive them? That’s insane,” said Greenfield.
Councilman Eric Ulrich, who was instrumental in helping Bloomberg receive the backing of the Republican Party in Queens, criticized the mayor for suggesting New Yorkers use their snow days to take in a Broadway show.
“I think people are starting to question his leadership ability,” said Ulrich.
As New Yorkers attempted to dig out their cars and waited for streets to be plowed, volunteer communal organizations were struggling to keep up with weather-related challenges.
Hatzolah, the volunteer ambulance corps, was inundated with double the number of calls usually received.
Severe snowstorms always create additional medical emergencies, particularly among the elderly. But with difficult road conditions persisting in and around New York City, Hatzolah members found themselves transporting women in labor and individuals undergoing chemotherapy, dialysis and other medical treatments that cannot be postponed.
Additionally, Hatzolah was busy covering a backlog of some 1,300 calls that could not be accommodated by the city’s 911 emergency response system.
Navigating the unplowed streets in neighborhoods such as Brooklyn, Queens and Far Rockaway proved especially difficult, with Hatzolah members forced to park their vehicles on main streets and walk to their destinations. Often, five, six or more members responded to a call in order to carry a patient back to their vehicle, often parked quite some distance away.
“Even if we could get the ambulance down the street,” said Hatzolah executive board member Heshy Jacob, “there is no clear access from the sidewalk to the street to load the patient into the ambulance. You would literally have to load the patient over a tremendous wall of snow into the ambulance. We still have to walk the patients to our vehicle which is often quite a distance away.”
Despite the difficulties involved, Jacob stressed that Hatzolah was still handling all its calls not only in a timely fashion but with the dedication the Jewish community has come to expect.
“We received a call at 1:30 a.m. on Sunday night in the middle of the blizzard from someone whose father was having chest pains and decided to drive himself to the hospital but had to pull over because he wasn’t feeling well,” said Jacob. “The son only knew that his father was parked somewhere on Allen Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. We sent two ambulances out to search for him, checking every non-moving car we saw on Allen Street that had its lights on until we found him and got him to the hospital. To 911 this would have been just another call, but to us it was a person, someone’s father, and we made it our business to go out and find him.”
Members of Hatzolah were going beyond the call of duty in dealing with the large volume of calls coming in.
“We have had members working 24/7,” said Flatbush coordinator Moishe Wulliger. “We have guys who are up all night long taking call after call after call. It is rough but our members are really coming through and really giving it their all.”
With city streets virtually impassable, Hatzolah broke with tradition and allowed members who own four-wheel drive vehicles to use their own cars to transport patients.
Upstate New York received just a few inches of snow, so Catskills Hatzolah sent its four-wheel drive ambulance down to the city. A Boro Park resident who owns a Hummer left the car with Hatzolah. “You can have it for the week, just don’t crash it,” he said.
In an effort to deal with the multitude of calls, Hatzolah turned to organizations such as Shomrim and Shmira as well as people who own four-wheel drive vehicles, asking their assistance in transporting people in non-medical situations.
Mayor Bloomberg, for his part, asked New Yorkers to be patient and defended his actions at a Tuesday press conference saying “we are doing the best we can.”