Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Snowbound - Don't mess with Mother Nature

On Sunday night, December 26, a monster snowstorm barreled into New York City. By the time the snow stopped falling about noon Monday, better than two feet of snow was on the ground in some places. High winds continued to cause blowing and drifting until this morning (Tuesday). Shoveling was a Sisyphean task; as soon as one shoveled, fresh or blowing snow obliterated the work. Many homeowners just didn't bother shoveling until late yesterday or today. I was not one of them; I had cleared a path on my stretch of sidewalk Monday morning, and spread calcium chloride on the pavement. My wife could not go to work yesterday because the streets were treacherous when not downright impassable; two broken ankles are enough, thank you very much.

But the point of this post is to show how people made the effects of the storm far worse than they had to be. In Yiddish there is a word "knacker," (both k's pronounced) which has been translated as "big shot," but more often is used sarcastically to describe a person who thinks he's a big shot but he's really a stupid fool. We all knew a day in advance that the storm was coming. The Mayor advised people to keep their cars off the roads. In a storm of this magnitude, most private cars without four wheel drive, and even some with, are likely to get stuck in the snow and block snowplows from removing the snow and making the road minimally navigable. They also block ambulances and fire trucks, with sometimes fatal consequences. Did New Yorkers heed the advice? Too many did not. For instance, my side street had two private cars stuck in the snow, one traveling the wrong way up the one-way street. Knackers. Snowplows couldn't get through; luckily, to the best of my knowledge, nobody needed an ambulance and fire engines did not need to pass. We have a terrific Hatzalah here in Midwood, but even the best Hatzalah people cannot make their ambulances fly over a car that's blocking the street. And even a mild snowstorm presents the danger of unfit people having heart attacks shoveling snow. The drivers of those cars abandoned their vehicles; anyone stranded in a car in this weather is in danger of hypothermia. The cars remained on my street for hours until they could be towed away.

Scenes like this were common; knackers who thought they
were bigger than nature made life miserable for many others.

As if individual wiseguys with total disregard for the common good weren't bad enough, the city was inexcusably caught off guard. Again, we all had advance warning that this storm was on the way. That should have given all concerned ample time to prepare. For individuals this means assuming the worst. Roads will be impassable, stores will not be getting deliveries even if they can open, so stock up on food for several days. Bring everything that can blow around and cause damage indoors (cf. Ex. 9:19 in this week's parsha). Make sure you have sufficient supplies of salt (calcium chloride is more expensive than sodium chloride but it won't harm concrete) and snow shovels. If you are too ill or out of shape to shovel snow, arrange for someone else to do it; here's in opportunity for yeshiva students to earn hesed credit. Then hunker down. Don't be a knacker. Unless you are performing an essential service (police, fire, Hatzalah, etc) do not try to get to work. You will only make a bad situation worse - much worse - for yourself and others. Health care facilities that must be staffed need to make arrangements for skeleton crews to sleep in the facility the night before, so they will be at work when needed. For the City, it means be prepared. The Mayor should have declared a state of emergency and banned private vehicles from the road rather than relying on individuals to be civic-minded and stay home. The threat of hefty fines should deter most of the knackers. Snowplows, salt spreaders and their crews needed to be ready to clear the roads and the subway tracks. Elevated trains cannot run if the snow is deep enough to cover the third rail, and this time it was more than deep enough. One train was stranded for several hours in sight of a station. Without power the heat failed and riders shivered in the cold; luckily nobody became seriously hypothermic. The Brighton line (B and Q) that serves my neighborhood is completely out of service - Astoria to Coney Island - as of this writing! That means that people who might be able to get to work by train were unable to do so and were tempted to drive.

This storm was unusual but hardly unprecedented. People of a certain age remember snowfalls of two feet or more that crippled the city - for a day at most. Preparedness is the key. So is recognizing that nobody is bigger than Mother Nature. Don't be a knacker. If nature says don't drive, don't drive. We just have to live with the fact that we can't always get around in December as if it was May (those who plan weddings in wintertime - hint, hint). And the authorities must rein in the knackers and take the political fallout; that's what we elected them for. And don't hide behind "no money" either. Recession or not, we depend on government to provide essential services. Private cars blocked buses and ambulances, but they did not block trains. Failure to clear the elevated tracks is entirely the fault of the city and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and our elected officials must be held to account. And oh yes, get yourselves in shape so you can shovel your own snow next year.

Scientists are telling us that heavy snowfalls (we had several last year too, but not as bad) will be more frequent, ironically, due to the planet warming up. Warm air holds more moisture than cold, so when a moisture-laden air mass travels north and cools below the freezing point, it dumps its water as snow. What we had yesterday may well be the shape of things to come. As the Boy Scouts say, be prepared.

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