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Sunday, February 05, 2023
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UB students detail harrowing experiences during ‘once-in-a-generation’ blizzard

Winter Storm Elliot left 43 dead in Erie County

Karthik Ramkumar had to resort to burning a book to stay warm during Winter Storm Elliot.
Karthik Ramkumar had to resort to burning a book to stay warm during Winter Storm Elliot.

After 10 days of treatment for a pelvic fracture that left her temporarily disabled and wheelchair-bound, Thraptthi Perumal came home to her apartment near UB’s South Campus. Less than 24 hours after she was discharged, Snowstorm Elliott hit her neighborhood — hard.

Her power, water and heat went out on the first day of the storm. Then the winds shattered an upstairs window, filling the living room above her with inches of snow and flooding her apartment. Perumal, a second-year law student at UB, feared that her roof would “fall off.” 

The temperature in her house at one point dipped below zero degrees Fahrenheit. There was little difference between the temperatures inside and outside her apartment. 

Several feet of snow left her trapped at home. Perumal had left her hospital bed, but the snow and heavy winds confined her to her own bed for several days. While the storm raged outside, there was little she could do; even crying would worsen her physical pain.

“I was starting to freak out because I was scared that if I slept, I might not wake up in the morning,” Perumal told The Spectrum.

Perumal put on two beanies, four pants, five woolen sweaters and three pairs of woolen socks, all before she layered herself under five or six blankets. The layers were nearly suffocating, yet still not enough to protect from the painful cold weather. Perumal and her friends kept their heads under the blankets to stay fully warm for as long as possible, but they had to endure the freezing temperatures to come up for air.

What started off as heavy rains on Thursday, Dec. 22 quickly turned into what Buffalo officials are calling the worst storm in recent history. Snow, rising to over four feet in some places, according to a four-day report by NOAA, descended upon Erie County through Tuesday, Dec. 27. Tens of thousands of Erie County residents experienced flooding, food insecurity and power outages.

There have been 69 deaths reported nationally from Winter Storm Elliot, according to Weather Underground. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz confirmed two additional deaths Friday, bringing Erie County’s death toll to 43. At least 30 died in the City of Buffalo alone. That number might rise as the county Medical Examiner’s Office continues to conduct autopsies. Many victims were found outside or at home. Some died of cardiac arrest while shoveling or blowing snow and while waiting for delayed emergency responders. One man in Niagara County died of carbon monoxide poisoning on Dec. 25 after snow covered an external furnace, according to the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office

Meanwhile, Perumal was still recovering from her injury in a wheelchair with the assistance of her friend, Karthik Ramkumar, a master’s student in engineering science at UB,  who decided to live with Perumal through her recovery.  

They could never imagine what would come next.

At around 10 a.m. the next day, the power went out in their apartment. Their running water went out shortly after as the pipes began to freeze.

“We thought we were going to be fine,” she said.

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Their optimism faded that afternoon when the thermostat dropped below 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

IMG_2191.jpg
Courtesy of Thraptthi Perumal
The historic storm shattered Perumal's window and filled the living room above her with inches of snow.

“I started shaking,” Ramkumar said. “My bones started feeling weaker and the pain was also getting intense.” 

They persistently called 911, 311 and the National Guard to get help, but emergency services were not able to assist them due to the dangerous weather and high volume of calls in Erie County.

“When you have 420 EMS calls that are unanswered, it’s gut-wrenching,” Erie County Sheriff John Garcia said on CNN on Dec. 26. 

Perumal first called 311 on Saturday morning. She didn’t get someone on the line until Sunday at about 3:30 p.m. The responder told her first responders could not get to her. They were prioritizing storm victims in worse situations, like those trapped in their cars.

The blizzard winds created white-out conditions, making adjacent homes impossible to see and cars nearby were completely covered in snow.

“It was so intense, I’ve never seen something like this in my life,” Ramkumar said.

With no electricity, no heat, limited water and dead phones, they were anxious and fearful. They felt helpless.

“As the clock ticks, each passing minute, you’re scared for your life,” Perumal said.

Friends and Premual’s landlord called several times to make sure they were OK. Perumal didn’t reach out to family because she didn’t want to frighten them. 

They used torchlights and candles for lighting. Friends living nearby brought them extra blankets and charged their phones. Perumal and her friends watched videos on how to keep rooms insulated. They took everything out of the closets, put all the clothes and sheets on the floor then covered and taped all the windows with sheets. Ramkumar used the extra sheets and mattresses to cover up the walls.

“I need to stay alive and seeing the next day was the only hope,” he recurringly though throughout the blizzard.

The pipes in their toilet froze, rendering it useless. Ramkumar eventually poured water from the hot water tank in the basement into the toilet to clear the pipes. He used his neighbor’s faucet to fill an empty trash can with water for cleaning and other sanitary purposes. 

Even with gloves, his hands were freezing when walking outside to the next door house.

“It’s a necessity, and we can’t live without water,” he said. “So I had to do that.”

On Friday night while they were sleeping, the living room window upstairs broke. They didn’t realize until the next morning when they woke up to a living room filled with snow. 

Perumal’s friends tried to cover the opening with wooden planks, but the wind was too strong. They had to lift the living room couch upright and push it against the window to barricade the opening. On Saturday evening, Perumal’s roommate moved to a friend’s house.

Food was scarce. 

“I could remember the Nutella being frozen,” Ramkumar said. “We thought we would be having breakfast with bread and nutella, but it didn’t happen.”

They mainly ate leftovers, ramen, chicken and chunks of cheese. Perumal’s friends brought them water in three Brita pitcher, but they froze by Saturday night, leaving them with nothing to drink.

“We didn’t know what to do,” Perumal said. “We’re trying not to cry because crying is a lot of energy and the tears would freeze our cheeks.”

Part of Perumal’s morning routine included saying “good morning” to her betta fish, Luna. On Sunday morning, Perumal woke up to find Luna dead, frozen solid inside her tank.

“She [Perumal] went just blank,” Ramkumar said. “There’s no words to express.”

Perumal had reached her breaking point.

“We’d already slept two nights frozen, so we can’t sleep another night like that,” she said. “I was like, ‘I need to leave the house.’”

Perumal’s friends tried multiple times to shovel a pathway to get her out in her wheelchair, but the snow fell as fast as they shoveled. They were ultimately unsuccessful.

They had one option left: lifting Perumal up in her wheelchair and walking her to their friend’s apartment. But with heavy winds and “knee-high” snow, it was too risky.  

“I started despising myself,” she said. “I was so handicapped, and I could not move out, and I didn’t know what to do at all.”

Perumal started to feel guilty that her friends stayed back and continued to help her. She told them to “save themselves,” but they were determined to stick with her. 

“They were cooking the food for me, they were putting the layers of clothes on me, and they were still trying as much as possible to help me get through this,” she said. “I would not survive without these people in my life.” 

Later that day, Perumal and Ramkumar, cold and tired, made a deal. 

“We decided that we were going to wait until 6 p.m.,” Perumal said. “And if by six, we do not get power, we will just do anything possible to leave the house. Just abandon the house and go.” 

At around 4 p.m., she poked her head out from under the blankets and saw a light on in her room.

“It was so refreshing, and I started jumping in joy, singing and shouting,”  Ramkumar said. “Just like when we celebrate when our favorite football team wins the football World Cup, even that doesn’t match. It’s something above and beyond, the sense of true happiness and relief in particular.” 

They had survived the storm.

“I couldn’t imagine going through it again,” Ramkumar said. 

Perumal says the storm was the worst experience of her life.

“It’s just about feeling helpless,” she said. “Not being able to leave your bed. Not being able to move and having someone else put through this with you, just because they’re your friend, is the worst.”

IMG_2192.jpg
Courtesy of Thraptthi Perumal
Winter Storm Elliot hit Buffalo with several feet of snow and blizzard winds, making it difficult to see, let alone travel.


Perumal and Ramkumar weren’t the only UB students riding out the storm. Gerald Brouard, an urban and public policy studies student at UB who lives in University Heights, lost power at 3 p.m. on Friday. He had no electricity or heat through Monday, Dec. 26 at 7:30 p.m.

Brouard cooked soup with candles and chicken nuggets on his car’s engine block.

“It f—king sucked,” Brouard said.

Upward of 28,000 Buffalo-area residents had no power on Dec. 25, according to The New York Times

More than 100 students were staying on campus during the storm, according to university spokesperson John Della Contrada. He added that Campus Living staff provided “around-the-clock care and support.” UB Parking and Transportation offered special bus services to grocery stores so that students could purchase food and supplies; and UB’s Student Life, Facilities and University Police staff worked collaboratively to provide and deliver food to students in resident halls. 

“The food went quickly, and students expressed their gratitude,” Della Contrada said. 

Several student residents on North Campus were blocked into their buildings by feet of snow for several days. Some students expressed their frustration with UB’s snow cleanup during the storm on UBreddit.

“[It] took me calling UBPD like three separate times for them to send someone to come dig me out,” a Reddit user by the name of Horses2001 commented. “They were willing to come help when it was realized that the only fire escape was blocked — oops.”

Immediately after the blizzard, UB plows and crews prioritized snow removal from residence hall roadways and entrances, according to Della Contrada. 

“There was a tremendous amount of snow on campus after the storm because it was too dangerous to plow in whiteout conditions as the blizzard raged,” Della Contrada said. “As soon as conditions improved, crews literally worked around the clock to clear roadways and walkways.” 

A.J Franklin is an assistant features editor and can be reached at aj.franklin@ubspectrum.com

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