West Orange is epicenter of county traffic delays

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WEST ORANGE, 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.”

West Orange was one of the hardest hit areas in Essex County due to accidents on the Garden State Parkway and I-280 near township exits. With limited entry and exit points, gridlock closed most main roads in town, stranding motorists and buses. Commutes that typically take 15 minutes instead took 10 hours.

According to West Orange Public Information Officer Susan Anderson, during the Nov. 15 storm, West Orange saw 1,895 calls to the dispatch center and police responded to 303 of those calls. Of those calls, there were 24 medical calls, four calls regarding injured persons, 41 motor vehicle accidents, eight car fires and 95 abandoned vehicles.

“As warmer temperatures and sunshine move us further from yesterday’s storm, it is important to understand what was learned from this and accept the responsibility for these local failings,” Mayor Robert Parisi said in a Nov. 16 statement. “Although this storm impacted the entire region, the small accumulation locally was accompanied with a perfect combination of circumstances that temporarily shut down our community.

“The forecasted amount of snow changed from a small amount to a more significant snowfall very quickly and not long before snow was falling steadily. This made it difficult for the county to respond quickly to changing forecast and the quickly approaching storm,” he continued. “This situation became a bigger problem based on a few conditions; first, the timing of the storm. If the quick accumulation occurred in the later evening hours, there were have been little difficulty in managing the storm, but it came in the midafternoon hours as many people were looking to get out of the storm and home to their families while schools were letting out at the same time.”

Parisi also said West Orange’s snow issues related directly to regional commuting issues, as there are 17 on and off ramps for I-280 in the township. I-280 quickly came to a standstill due to accidents and trapped vehicles, with excess traffic spilling into West Orange and congesting the township’s roadways

“As snow accumulated and passage became difficult, most roads came to a stop, making salting and plowing an impossibility at that point,” Parisi said Nov. 16. “This combination of slow county response to county roads, quick accumulation and the speed in which roads became crowded and impassable, provided the perfect circumstances for the gridlock that ensued until the early hours this morning. This gridlock made it more difficult for township plow vehicles to access many of the municipal roads we are counted on to clear.

“This summary of events is not meant as an excuse, only an explanation of the circumstances that led to the shutdown. There is plenty of blame to go around and I will accept the responsibility for that,” Parisi continued, adding that he should have communicated sooner with the county as the forecast changed to ensure county roads in West Orange were salted in advance of snow.

“Though school closings or early dismissals always come at the discretion of the schools superintendent, I should have strongly encouraged that schools be closed early and children sent home,” he said. “This storm was the first for the acting superintendent, but not mine, and an early dismissal should have been discussed and strongly requested early in the day,” he continued.

According to Parisi, the township could have done a better job pre-positioning snow vehicles prior to the storm; the township should have begun salting county roads to prevent freezing once it learned the county’s response was delayed; and the township should have communicated more with the schools and residents.

Nevertheless, Parisi did point out several positives from Nov. 15.

“The Department of Public Works worked throughout the storm and throughout the night to have our town back to normal this morning,” he said. “The men and women of our police and fire departments provided important emergency response under very difficult circumstances, transporting 20 residents to local hospitals and addressing eight fully engulfed vehicle fires, in addition to several calls for service for various needs. Thankfully no residents were seriously injured. They helped get all students stuck on buses to local safe locations; in many cases accessing stranded buses on foot as it was not possible to get to them in cars.

“Many township employees and much of the library staff stayed well past midnight to help care for the many residents and children that were looking for warm and safe locations,” he continued. “Much of our school’s staff stayed throughout the night to feed, entertain and keep the stranded children protected and bus drivers did extraordinary things to look after the children in their care. And many residents and local businesses went out of their way to provide comfort and warmth to the many people stuck in cars and far from home.”

As the roads were impassable for many hours, school dismissal was drastically affected. Several West Orange school buses were trapped in the snow for hours and many students could not get home at all, instead being forced to spend the night at school in an impromptu sleepover with school faculty and staff. The final West Orange School District students arrived home as of 10:30 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 16.

According to the school district, most of the students stuck on buses on closed roadways were high school students. Many of those buses, with the help of the West Orange Police Department, were rerouted to the Chit Chat Diner on Eagle Rock Avenue, where the students were fed. They were then taken to West Orange High School, where they spent the night. Those bus numbers were 314, 315, 316, 327, 347, 5, 29, 140, 141, 138 and 139.

West Orange school buses typically do three runs in the afternoon, starting with the high school. Since many of those buses were stuck on closed roadways, such as Eagle Rock Avenue, Prospect Avenue and Pleasant Valley Way, they were unable to pick up middle and elementary school students.

Students attending Betty Maddalena Early Learning Center; Kelly, Redwood and Mt. Pleasant elementary schools; and Edison, Roosevelt and Liberty middle schools were also affected. Those students were kept overnight as the WOPD and DPW removed abandoned vehicles and salted and plowed the roads.

Faculty and staff remained at the schools to prepare dinner, provide snacks and care for the children. Students played games, watched movies, read, played basketball, worked on computers, and more throughout the evening.

Parents in close proximity to schools walked in with extra blankets, pillows and other supplies. Other parents took their children and their children’s friends to their homes.

At 5 a.m. on Nov. 16, transportation began calling drivers in to prepare to transport students home. Parents were contacted after secondary roads were cleared regarding anticipated departure and arrival times. Throughout the evening and morning, parents able to pick up their children did so.

“The District Administration is preparing to debrief the details around yesterday’s storm in collaboration with our township and will be preparing to present our findings at the upcoming Board of Education meeting,” Acting Superintendent Eveny de Mendez said in a Nov. 16 statement. “We thank our students, staff and township personnel for the immense amount of support and dedication given to ensuring the safety and well-being of our students.”

The Board of Education met Nov. 20, after press time. The district also drafted a lengthy letter explaining how the district makes decisions prior to and during snowstorms; this letter can be accessed on the district’s website at www.woboe.org.

Following the trials of the day before and continued work on the roads, West Orange 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.”

Photos Courtesy of WOSD and Chris Strom