Singaporeans caught in New York blizzard recount ordeals
Ms Leong Yi Yin woke up shivering on the morning of Dec 24 and wore a puffer jacket before burrowing under three blankets in her bed to stave off the cold.
The 26-year-old Singaporean’s flat in Buffalo, New York, had been without electricity – and therefore, without heating – for 30 hours.
Sheets of snow billowed and swirled outside while “the blizzard of a century” – as it has been named – whipped western New York. The student’s roommates had returned to their homes for the holidays, and she was left alone in the frigid flat.
“I was all bundled up under the sheets, but fog was still coming out of my mouth whenever I breathed. I looked out the window, and it was completely white… I’ve never seen snow pile up so fast before,” said the University of Buffalo student, who is pursing her master’s in communications and has lived in Buffalo for the past 14 months.
The city, half-an-hour’s drive from Niagara Falls, is known to be one of the snowiest in the United States.
The powerful winter storm knocked out power, made roads impassable, and claimed at least 39 lives in New York’s Erie County, where Buffalo is situated.
To stay warm, Ms Leong boiled a pot of water and left it steaming on her gas stovetop. But as freezing temperatures persisted on the morning of Christmas Eve, she reached out for help on a Facebook group for Buffalo residents with over 68,000 members.
Almost immediately, a family of four on a nearby street who had not lost power offered to open up their home to her.
But reaching her neighbour’s place proved to be an ordeal.
“It was just a two-minute walk on Google Maps. But the snow came up to my thighs, and it was so dense and thick that it was hard to walk. There was no one on the streets and all I could see were cars buried under the snow. I was trying to figure out where I was,” said Ms Leong.
“It was so cold and dry, I could taste blood in my throat.”
At her neighbour’s place, she played with the couple’s two children and told them about life in Singapore. While electricity to her flat was eventually restored on Christmas afternoon, she ended up staying with her neighbours until Boxing Day in case there was another power cut.
“It was a traumatising experience, partly because there was no way for me to charge my phone and contact people. But it’s also crazy how I managed to meet a family that way, and they were so kind to offer me food and shelter when I was so far from home,” said Ms Leong.
Mr Keenan Kuah, 25, a postgraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, also experienced the kindness of strangers who helped him and his friends when their road trip went awry.
Mr Kuah and his three friends – all Singaporeans – had planned to drive up to Niagara Falls on the Canadian side during their school holidays. On Dec 23, while making their way there from Philadelphia, their car got stuck in the heavy snow near Alden, a village in Erie County.
“The road had a lot of powdered snow, so the wheels would spin in place – that’s how most people got stuck,” said Mr Kuah, who added that the first three times the vehicle got stuck, they managed to push it out of the snow with help from others.
“The entire road was blocked, there was an SUV on the left lane, a semi-trailer truck in the middle, and our car on the right, and we were all stuck. We actually gave up and were preparing to sleep there, but someone used a snow shovel and got us out,” said Mr Kuah.
The group managed to get to the nearest petrol station by the wee hours of Christmas Eve. They abandoned their plan to reach their Airbnb accommodation in Canada and slept in their car that night.
“We camped out next to the gas station. We were scared of the exhaust clogging up and carbon monoxide poisoning if we left the engine on throughout the night, so we parked the car with the exhaust against the wind,” Mr Kuah said.
The next morning, he said, many vehicles were snowed in, and with a countywide travel ban, there was nowhere to go. They called 911 for help and were told they were at the bottom of the rescue list as they were beside a petrol station.
The friends made their way to a volunteer fire department that was providing shelter after a fellow driver at the petrol station told them about it. Later, they were moved to a church with other stranded people, and were given blankets, food and water for two nights.
They finally left for the city of Syracuse, which was largely spared the worst of the blizzard, after conditions eased.
“It was scary because we heard that there were a lot of casualties,” said Mr Kuah of the experience.
Other Singaporeans living in the affected area were more fortunate. Ms Phua Zhi Ting, 29, who has lived in Buffalo, New York, for seven years, said she was mentally prepared for the blizzard after listening to weather reports.
Ms Phua, who works in a non-profit organisation, was home alone with her dog during the blizzard as her firefighter boyfriend was working. She said she rationed whatever food she had.
“With the storm being so bad, the streets could not be ploughed. Cars and trucks were stuck. Grocery stores were all closed. We could not get supplies from anywhere,” she said.
“My biggest challenge was having to FaceTime my boyfriend while he was at work when some of our pipes froze, and I had to learn how to shut off the water valves. My main responsibility was to keep the taps dripping to prevent the pipes from freezing.”
Ms Phua also commended the efforts of rescue workers and emergency crews, who were inundated with calls during the blizzard. She saw first-hand the pressure they were under, as her boyfriend had to pull a 79-hour shift because his colleagues could not make it to work.
“For my boyfriend, the hardest and most heartbreaking thing... was knowing that everyone needed help, yet he and his colleagues couldn’t help everyone. Despite the forecast and however prepared one was, the blizzard seemed to be more overwhelming and catastrophic than anyone imagined.”