UNION COUNTY, NJ — Officials from around the county blamed the midafternoon timing of the unseasonal Nov. 15 snow storm — rather than higher-than-predicted accumulations — for the chaos of gridlocked roads and multihour commutes.
Those responsible for snow removal, mostly the heads of municipal public works departments, said the havoc was caused in part by lunch hour, rush hour and school traffic — including colleges — occurring simultaneously.
“Our plows and spreaders were stuck in the same traffic as everyone else, making it impossible to put salt on the roads and plow the roads sufficiently until all traffic subsided later in the evening and night,” Union County spokesman Sebastian Delia said in a Nov. 20 email.
Initial forecasts called for 1 to 4 inches of snow — rather than the 7 inches that some areas received — so local public works departments prepared as they would for any other storm.
“We always prepare for a storm providing that the worst-case scenario will be the case,” Union Superintendent of Public Works Louis Ulrich, said in a Nov. 21 phone interview. “We never go on the conservative end of predictions.”
Around the county, towns such as Union, Springfield and Summit prepped for Thursday’s storm by brining the streets the night before, salting and readying plows.
“Being prepared was certainly not an issue,” Springfield Supervisor of Public Works Robert Boettcher said in a phone interview on Nov. 21.
Towns usually wait until roads have 2 inches of accumulation before plowing, but those 2 inches came just as traffic started piling up. By then, predictions had been updated, with more than 7 inches expected in some areas.
“I feel that commuters don’t understand that the snow really had little to do with Thursday’s gridlock,” Boettcher said. “Not being able to actually get out and plow is what crippled everything.”
When the snow started to accumulate around 2 p.m., traffic from highways and main roads began to flood local roads, making it difficult for plows to maneuver, let alone clear the snow, Summit Director of Community Services Paul Cascais, said in an email on Nov. 20.
“Commuters from nearby towns were diverted by GPS traffic apps from highways to local routes,” Cascais said. “Gridlock paralyzed our town and the region.”
Ulrich said Union’s close proximity to main roads such as the Garden State Parkway, U.S. Route 22 and Interstate 78 is a benefit at times, although it certainly was not during the storm.
“There are a lot of main arteries that go through here, more than most towns,” he said. “It’s a blessing but a curse sometimes because everyone from the crowded highways dump out onto our streets.”
Ulrich also said residents are quick to blame the department of public works when storms significantly impact a town.
“People point the finger at me all of the time with the way situations are handled,” he said. “But I’ve been doing this long enough to know that, even when they only call for an inch, we get all of the plows ready because it could possibly turn into 5 inches.”
Boettcher described the Nov. 15 snow event as a “perfect storm,” and said there was little the DPW could have done differently.
“Just the perfect storm came together and everyone was released at the same time,” he said. “I could see that, if you went from one town to another town, and one of them was passable. But I don’t care where you went, it was all consistent with the conditions as far as gridlock.”
Both Cascais and Ulrich emphasized that every storm provides a learning experience for municipalities.
“When you battle a snowstorm, you don’t just set out to do something and that it,” Ulrich said. “You have to constantly adjust on the fly and learn from everything you do.”
“After every storm, we have a debrief to understand what worked well, what was less effective and where we need to improve,” Cascais stated.