Snowstorm wallops SO and Maplewood

Northfield Avenue on Nov. 15

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The snowstorm on Thursday, Nov. 15, proved a lot more intense than had been anticipated. As a result, it caused havoc in northern New Jersey, as resources were overtaxed, commuters were trapped inside their cars for hours, and students were stranded at school or inside school buses. Essex County saw 6 to 8 inches of snow in various areas — far more than the 1 to 4 inches originally predicted.

There are hundreds of stories from area residents of being trapped inside their cars anywhere from two to 14 hours just to travel short distances, as school dismissal traffic met traffic from people leaving work early. The issue was compounded by the fact that the snow started a bit earlier than expected and many roads had not been properly prepped — especially state roads. Highways were a mess, with commuters trapped for hours upon hours with little evidence that they were going to be rescued, as the state’s plows and salt trucks were deployed too late to get to problem areas. As cars became stuck and drivers lost hope, more and more cars were abandoned.

Gov. Phil Murphy — in the first snowstorm of his term in office — took a lot of heat from critics for the state’s poor response and the ensuing chaos. Murphy, who throughout the storm told commuters to “keep the faith and have patience,” has blamed “lousy” forecasts.

“Clearly we could have done better — and we will do better,” Murphy said in a Nov. 16 press conference.

These same issues of early snow — and a lot of it — also affected county and municipal resources.

“Yesterday’s snowstorm created havoc not just for Essex County, but the entire Tri-State region,” Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. said in a Nov. 16 statement. “We relied on several different weather forecasts, all of which grossly underestimated the amount of snow we received. In addition, the arrival of the storm during the middle of the day could not have come at a worse time. As businesses and schools closed in midafternoon, the amount of traffic pouring into the streets made it impossible for salt trucks and plows to move. Our DPW has continued working through the night and this morning to clear snow from county thoroughfares. We applaud the extraordinary efforts of law enforcement and first responders who assisted stranded motorists, and teachers who stayed with their students overnight in schools.”

According to Maplewood Township Administrator Sonia Alves-Viveiros, during the Nov. 15 storm, Maplewood saw 119, 9-1-1 calls between 1 p.m. and midnight, and 400 other emergency phone calls. The calls included reports of 14 motor vehicle accidents, 22 disabled vehicles and one medical aid call concerning a woman in labor.

“The storm could not have come at a worse time, with schools just letting out and the evening commute,” Maplewood Police Chief Jimmy DeVaul told the News-Record on Nov. 18. “The snow fell hard and fast. The traffic on the roadways caused a compaction of snow creating an icy build up. The snowplows could not get through to do their jobs. Lack of police, fire or public workers was not a factor in this storm. Motorists sat in traffic for hours. Many cars were stranded or abandoned on the streets causing further delays. School buses also had a very difficult time navigating in the wet snow.

“While I understand the public’s desire to get home before the storm hits, I recommend staying put whenever possible. I would suggest for school officials to implement a plan that makes sense during weather events such as these. I believe parents would rather have their children remain safe in school than spend hours on a school bus stuck in traffic or worse,” he continued. “I want to thank all of our officers, firefighters, dispatchers and DPW workers for an excellent job under difficult circumstances. I also want to thank SOPD Chief Kroll and his officers for their assistance during the storm.”

According to Lauren Maluchnik, from the South Orange Administration Office, the village received approximately 135 9-1-1 calls between 1:45 and 10 p.m.

“South Orange Public Works, Office of Emergency Management, Police and Fire were all fully staffed the day/night of the storm,” Maluchnik told the News-Record on Nov. 20. “There were no major roads that were officially closed. However, there were many roads that were effectively impassible at any given point in the evening. Most of the county roads were lined with cars in both directions leaving motorists stranded in place for up to an hour or more. This situation could not be alleviated in part because the congestion extended beyond the borders of South Orange.”

South Orange President Sheena Collum maintained contact with residents through her Facebook page, as well as other means.

“Neighbors, as you know, I’m not in town but I have been in contact with our various departments,” Collum wrote on her Facebook page on Nov. 15. “I’ve received dozens of messages alerting me to the conditions you are encountering, including cars that are stuck. Our departments — particularly public safety — need to triage and I trust them to do so in order to ensure a prioritization of immediate needs versus inconvenience. They are all inundated with calls. Please be patient, stay off the roads, and recognize our professionals know what they’re doing. This isn’t their first rodeo — it is snow in the northeast after all. The roads were ‘prepped’ prior to the storm, but once school let out, the volume of snow intensified and rush hour happened and now it’s a worst case scenario and plows cannot get through.”

During the storm, Collum also notified South Orange departments not to enforce overnight parking restrictions in the village.

“In recognition that many residents have had to abandon their cars in order to get home safely, the village will not be enforcing overnight parking restrictions on local roads,” the village posted on its website on Nov. 15. “Our primary objective is safety and we want residents to stay home.”

“Our primary objective is your safety and certainly not towing and revenue,” Collum said.

As the roads were impassable for many hours, school dismissal was drastically affected.

“The snow fall and hazardous driving conditions have prompted extreme delays in getting students safely home,” the South Orange-Maplewood School District wrote in an email to parents and guardians on Nov. 15. “Some students have not been picked up yet due to travel delays for their parents/guardians/caregivers. Some buses have still not arrived at their schools, and other buses did pick up students, but have not yet completed their routes.

“Please do not worry about your children — administrators and teachers are supervising all students who remain in our school buildings, and Central Office and Transportation are in regular contact with the buses, and all students still on buses are safe,” the message continued. “Staff will remain on duty until every child has been safely picked up, or delivered to their bus stop.”

Unlike neighboring West Orange, where many children were forced to spend the night in schools with faculty, all South Orange-Maplewood School District students did make it home.

“We did manage to get all children safely home last night,” SOMSD Communications Director Suzanne Turner told the News-Record on Nov. 16. “No child had to stay overnight at a school.”

Thursday evening, as students were stranded at schools awaiting pickup, district administrators and staff stayed at schools to care for children, improvising activities and providing comfort. The schools broke into their emergency water and food supplies for students and ensured the heat remained on. According to the district, all students had either been transported to their homes or to a safe location by 10 p.m.

As for busing, several parents have complained that they did not know where their children were and that their children on the buses were very frightened. According to Ficarra, SOMSD staff members were in constant communication with the busing companies and the individual buses throughout the ordeal, and tracked each bus until the last child was delivered.

“We were unable to give parents individual updates on their children’s buses’ locations and ETAs due to the scale of the problem; we had about 30 buses either stuck or bogged down in traffic at the same time,” Ficarra said. “Our transportation department and business office coordinated with police to open up the routes that buses needed to get through, and school administrators stayed in their buildings until they received confirmation that every bus, which had conveyed their students, had returned to the yard after students were all released.

“In future transportation contracts, we will require that all buses have the capacity to communicate directly with school principals,” he continued. “We also plan to incorporate GPS systems on district and contracted buses, which can report locations of all vehicles in real time, increasing our ability to respond to inquiries and provide updates.”

The district recognizes that the snowstorm was stressful and has been providing support to students.

“Thursday was an extraordinary evening, with the unexpectedly early winter snow blast creating travel chaos and prompting an official declaration of a state of emergency for Essex County. The event overwhelmed transportation systems, overloaded existing communications systems, and paralyzed our two towns, our county and our region,” Acting Superintendent Thomas Ficarra said Nov. 17. “I recognize that this snow emergency was extremely stressful for many of our families who were not able to reach school to pick up their children, were unsure of the exact location of the bus which their children were on, or when it would arrive home. I offer my empathy and concern for the children and their parents who were involved in this emergency. We will have social workers and guidance counselors available on Monday and Tuesday to offer support to students and help them process their experiences in Thursday’s snowstorm emergency.”

Following the trials of the day before and continued work on the roads, SOMA schools were closed Friday, Nov. 16.

And schools weren’t the only organizations affected. The MetroWest JCC, located on Northfield Road in West Orange, sheltered children in its after-school program through the early morning hours.

“With the entire town’s — and really, the entire region’s — road system crippled due to the weather, the JCC had dozens of staff stay into the wee hours of the morning past 3 a.m. with over 100 kids from our Kids Club after-school program and preschool,” JCC Chief Operating Officer Chris Strom said in a Nov. 16 email. “It took some parents 10-plus hours to travel from their home or work to get to the J to pick up their child from our program.”

Through the storm, the JCC cared for more than 100 children, two dozen senior citizens and more than 30 staff members. The Seiden Early Childhood Center and Kids Club staff stayed until 2:58 a.m. early this morning until the last infant was picked up; and staff from the Littman Memory Center, Margulies Senior Center and two different JCHC housing communities fed, engaged and cared for seniors adults past 2 a.m.

Also, Camp Deeny Riback and Kids Club staff spent countless hours navigating West Orange, Livingston and the surrounding communities in buses filled with Kids Club children, keeping them fed, entertained and safe; the last bus received a West Orange Police Department escort past all the stalled traffic to the JCC.

“Caring for the community is in our DNA, but last night was extraordinary,” Strom said, mentioning staff members who fielded hundreds of phone calls from concerned residents and worked to shovel and salt the area outside the JCC. “We want to send a huge thank you to our staff and the community who got us through the evening safe and sound yesterday.”