Between the lines

Storm of the century?

Fifty years from now, those who managed to survive the snowstorm of Nov. 15 will not tell their grandkids about how they had to walk though the 3 to 6 inches of snow, the way their grandparents talked about historic storms that dumped feet instead of inches. Rather, the survivors of Nov. 15 will talk about where they were and how they could not get home for hours in what should have been a relative inconvenience.

A store merchant in Secaucus recently talked about the hour and half it took his brother to get across town to pick him up, only to face gridlocked streets once he got there.

Secaucus Mayor Michael Gonnelli, one time champion of clearing snow from town streets when he served as the head of the Department of Public Works, apologized for the mess on his Facebook page.

But he was not alone. People and public entities panicked everywhere. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey even closed the doors to the bus terminal in New York in the middle of rush hour and blocked the escalators to the bus platforms on the upper floors – largely because few if any buses were actually returning to the terminal from New Jersey. Traffic was snarled in Weehawken and Hoboken outside the tunnels, particularly because of trees that collapsed (more than 12 in mile-square Hoboken alone). Parts of River Road were closed from Weehawken to Fort Lee.

Grandkids in the future will hear just how unprepared local and state officials were in dealing with the early storm, and these tales may even rival those told about the blackouts of 1965, 1977, or 2002. One Union City woman, locked out of the Port Authority bus terminal in New York, took a subway to the PATH, the PATH southwest under the river to Jersey City and Hoboken, and then the Hudson Bergen Light Rail north to get home.

Contractors working on new residential towers on Hudson Street in Jersey City talked about how they struggled to weave through the massive traffic jams that plagued the rest of the state. In recounting their tale, they claim they have never seen so much turmoil over so little snowfall.

Theories abound about the cause of this madness. Some claim this shutdown of roads and services was a reaction to the fact that the storm arrived nearly a month before anyone might expect it.

Yet, in 2011, a similar storm hit New Jersey in late October. While limbs cracked from the excess weight of snow, including their still-green leaves, people didn’t panic for the most part, and roads remained passable.

But on Nov. 15, people in and out of their vehicles, trapped by this massive display of environmental power, have been looking for someone to blame other than Mother Nature, or the tendency of people to overreact.

Perhaps the best theory as to why New Jersey shut down on Nov. 15 is more political. This storm hit during one of the most significant political rituals of the year, far outweighing mere holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas. The storm hit during the three-day festival known as the League of Municipalities Convention in Atlantic City.

Anybody in government who is anybody would have been at the convention both during the storm and in the days leading up to the storm.

This means supervisors, legislators, mayors, and council people were not in their hometowns overseeing operations. Since this annual event is both educational and recreational, many of these same leaders did not designate any of their staff to drive them home. It is also likely that those managers who were best suited to oversee operations were attending lectures or after-parties at the convention, and may have not considered the impact of the storm at all.

Unlike many of those people stuck on highways or in bus terminals, these administrators in Atlantic City might not remember anything from that night except that someone kept offering them drinks.

Just who was left behind to make decisions throughout the state remains a question for posterity to ponder – and for grandkids of the future to marvel over, and wonder how we all managed to survive.

The running joke for those survivors who can still laugh compares Gov. Phil Muprhy to his predecessor, former Gov. Christopher Christie. While Christie managed to shut down the George Washington Bridge (in a scandal since called “Bridgegate”), Murphy managed to shut down the whole state. In the future, Murphy will likely have the salt trucks out on state-run highways at even the rumor of snow.

But fortunately, nobody will likely catch him sitting in a beach chair on state beaches, sunshine or snow – the way Christie was when he shut down state facilities during the Fourth of July.

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