Union County digs out from storm

Municipalities, residents struggle to cope with historic snowfall

UNION COUNTY, NJ — The weekend blizzard more than lived up to the hype, delivering as much as 30 inches of snow in parts of Union County on Saturday, Jan. 23. A state of emergency was declared in New Jersey, public schools in all county districts were closed the following Monday, and DPW workers were still working to better clear roads as of press time on Tuesday.

When Kenilworth Mayor Anthony Deluca was reached by phone on Sunday night, snow was still being moved from residential roads to the borough’s emergency snow mounds. But DPW workers in Kenilworth, like elsewhere, pulled shifts “all day and all night” and cleared the area’s main roads hours after the storm passed, said Deluca.

“They’ve done an awesome job, considering what they’ve had to deal with. Right now, we have no place to put the snow,” said Deluca, who’s also an emergency responder with Kenilworth’s volunteer fire department. “Our police were out, in full force, and they were getting stuck in the storm, it was that bad. We were driving around pulling people out of the storm — people got caught in drifts — and the good thing was, it was a Saturday. If this was a Friday, with people trying to get home, it would have been a nightmare.”

Deluca, who’s lived in Kenilworth for 49 years, hadn’t seen so much snow on the ground since the 1970’s. But the storm wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been, he said: No one in the area lost power, residents generally stayed indoors, emergency responders rose to the occasion, and friendly neighbors helped each other out, when they could. And the presence of emergency mounds can’t be avoided, in the aftermath of a storm like this.

“There’s a big one in front of the fire house,” said Deluca. “We’re trying to find places that aren’t going to impede on people.”
The official count in Kenilworth and Linden was 30 inches of snow, but no one was hit harder than the Westfield branch of Trader Joe’s. At about 3 p.m. on Saturday, most of the building’s roof collapsed under the weight of the blizzard.

“Trader Joe’s experienced a major roof collapse, apparently, due to the structural stress of the heavy winds and the weight of the snow,” reads a statement on Westfield’s official website. The announcement went on to say the area near Trader Joe’s will “remain closed beyond the conclusion of the blizzard conditions, as the full extent of the damage is determined and the cleanup of external debris is completed.”

The popular grocery store plans to re-open at the same location, the company announced, but for the foreseeable future the Westfield site isn’t “suitable for use.” Another local facility, The Center Circle Sports Complex in Rahway, also suffered a collapsed roof during the storm; the center includes two indoor arenas used for soccer, lacrosse and other sports.

Elsewhere around the county, municipalities were hampered by the volume of snowfall and low visibility, even as emergency responders and DPW workers worked around the clock. Many towns pointed to cars left parked on the streets as a major hindrance to DPW efforts, including in Hillside, Linden — where there was no recycling or garbage pickup through Wednesday — and Union.

“With so many cars parked on the street, not only does it take extra time to navigate these particular streets and sections, but it delays us in getting to other parts of town,” said Union Mayor Manuel Figueiredo, in a statement on Sunday night. “This, combined with snow drifts that are several feet high, routine maintenance issues with some of our equipment, and the weight of such heavy snow, is causing a problematic situation to become even more difficult.”

Problems with parked cars on streets in Hillside, and a DPW department overwhelmed by the record-breaking storm, led the mayor’s office of Hillside to hire residents in the cleanup effort at $12 an hour. The only requirements for workers were that they be at least 18, eligible to work in the U.S. and capable of performing manual labor, indicating that shoveling was the job.

“Hillside is looking for additional emergency snow laborers to remove snow and ice from bus stops, crosswalks, step streets and other areas throughout the town,” said Hillside mayor Angela Garretson, in a public announcement. “Interested workers should go to the DPW garage to sign up.”

That’s why, around Union County, residents were asked “to stay safe, stay indoors and off the roads,” as Figueiredo said, with their cars stored in driveways or municipal lots, in order to let local DPW workers do their jobs.

The Kenilworth mayor agreed.
“The best thing to do in these types of events it to just stay home. A lot of our residents took that outlet, they stayed home, which was good. It gave our emergency responders, it gave the DPW, it gave everybody the chance to get out there and clear the roads,” said Deluca. “And that’s the most important thing to do in these events: Stay calm. Realize that the resources are out there if you need them, but it’s best to stay home with your family, safe and warm.”

Educators did their part in letting people stay home, as public school districts, Union County College and Kean University fully cancelled or delayed opening on Monday.