Snow City, Washington: A first-person account

Millions of residents living along the East Coast of the United States woke up last Saturday to find everything in their neighbourhood covered in a thick blanket of white. The snowstorm, which forecasters predicted would end by early yesterday, broug
Millions of residents living along the East Coast of the United States woke up last Saturday to find everything in their neighbourhood covered in a thick blanket of white. The snowstorm, which forecasters predicted would end by early yesterday, brought Washington (above), New York and other eastern cities to a standstill and claimed 19 lives.ST PHOTO: JEREMY AU YONG

The Straits Times' US Bureau chief Jeremy Au Yong tells what it is like to encounter one of the worst snowstorms in the American capital

You can read all the weather statistics you want, but nothing quite helps you understand what 56cm of snow means like standing knee-deep in it, trying to walk as your face feels like someone is continuously throwing sand in it.

At the height of the blizzard in the US capital last Saturday afternoon, I wandered outside for a close encounter with one of the worst snowstorms to hit the city in years.

I was not alone. Even though the wind often blew the snow sideways - reducing visibility to zero - dozens of Washingtonians had similarly ventured out into the cold to look for stores that had stayed open, snap selfies or just take in the surreal scene.

 

Millions living along the East Coast of the United States woke up last Saturday to find everything in their neighbourhood covered in a thick blanket of white.

It is a strange feeling indeed to walk out of your front door and be almost unfamiliar with your surroundings.

A combination of heavy snow and wind meant that the snow in some places was piled high enough to bury cars and bicycles.

All that shut down roads and public transport. A few people with trucks and large four-wheel drives gamely tried to tackle the roads but, otherwise, most motorists heeded warnings to stay off roads.

Most people who went out often chose to walk in the middle of main roads because that was where the cars and the occasional snowplough had flattened the snow to a manageable thickness. But to get to the middle of the road meant trudging through thick drifts, often guessing where the kerb or other obstacles were.

The sight of Washington's 14th Street, normally one of the city's busiest thoroughfares, taken over by pedestrians evoked comparisons to post-apocalyptic movies.

Those who were out were apparently determined to make the most of a dire situation.

Some organised snowball fights while others broke out winter sports gear.

I spotted a man riding a snowmobile near Washington's nightlife district and another in full snowboard gear looking for a good slope.

The one good thing about snowfall is that temperatures are rarely at their worst.

Two years ago, when the polar vortex sent temperatures dipping to around minus 15 deg C in the city, not a single snowflake fell.

Over the weekend, temperatures were a more manageable minus 2 deg C. But the scenes of people having fun in the city's snow belied the seriousness of the situation.

Things could easily go south. Should a medical emergency occur, it would be a challenge to get to a hospital. Lose power and there would be no warm space to take shelter. Indeed, throughout the day, there were various reports of havoc which the storm had caused.

At least 19 people were reported dead as a result of storm-related car accidents, as the city authorities along the East Coast urged drivers to stay off the roads.

New York City went as far as banning driving last Saturday afternoon, threatening to arrest those who persisted.

A state of emergency was declared in at least 10 states and widespread power outages were reported in North and South Carolina, as well as New Jersey. Flight tracking website FlightAware reported at least 12,000 flight cancellations from last Friday to yesterday.

The snowstorm was right up there with the worst the country has ever seen.

As of last Saturday night, the 64cm of snow that had fallen in New York's Central Park was enough to make it the third-biggest snowfall in the city's history.

And though the skies had cleared yesterday, officials expected the clean-up to last for days.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 25, 2016, with the headline 'Snow City, Washington'. Print Edition | Subscribe