What had been initially predicted to be a minor one to three inches of snow that would turn to rain later on in the day last Thursday left hundreds of kids stranded at school and thousands stalled on the highways.
But who’s to blame: the weather or the state?
Surely, NJ has had this type of snow before — in fact — it’s seen much worse, with a record 52 inches in February of 1961. The predicted snowfall total was relatively mild last week, but the overall storm model didn’t change until 12:30 pm Thursday afternoon — and by then it was too late.
A low pressure system had moved in overnight from the southwest, and an intense and quick bout of heavy precipitation had moved in during the late afternoon, ramping up the predicted snowfall to four to eight inches. Other factors, including wind strength, ground, and air temperature, caused certain areas in north of the state, such as Randolph, NJ, to receive up to 10 inches.
Because of the initial milder prediction, the Department of Transportation hadn’t planned on bringing out snow plows until the snow had actually started to fall. This turned out to be a huge mistake, severely impacting the evening commute.
Kelsey, a student teacher in Middlesex County, said her typically 30-minute commute from home from school took three hours. “The route I take home was congested with traffic and there was still a lot of snow on the ground…everyone had drive to very slowly because the roads were slippery and slushy.”
There was also a higher volume of traffic on the road with people trying to leave early to beat the storm, which made conditions even more challenging. By 2 pm, there had already been several accidents and pileups. This created the perfect storm, as children were being dismissed from school, causing those who did not receive an early dismissal from their district to ultimately have nowhere to go because of the traffic.
This was particularly bad for the students of the West Orange School District, who had to reroute some of their buses — that by 10 PM had still not dropped them off — to the Chit Chat Diner so they could eat while waiting for their parents to come pick them up.
Students of Liberty Middle School, however, suffered the worst as they were forced to stay at the school overnight.
But they made the most of it, “raiding” the cafeteria for dinner and having movie marathons and basketball knockout tournaments. Some students were up until 2:30 am playing games and hanging out, before falling asleep on gym mats alongside their fellow stranded peers and teachers.
They awoke to french toast sticks for breakfast, graciously provided by the staff who had worked tirelessly to make sure they were comfortable and safe. By 9 am Friday, nearly all the students had made it back home, where they were to (rightfully) remain for the rest of the day with the district’s school closing.
Not all students faired as well.
While most made it home safely, many were without their parents for most of the day because of the delays. Marie Cascarano, a staff member at Montclair State University, said that “by 8 pm I went to check on the roads and cars were still bumper to bumper…; my 12 year old was alone most of that time…I wasn’t sure if and what time I’d finally get home.”
Overall, what was once thought to be a minor snow storm turned into a commuter catastrophe. In total, police estimated they responded to around 1,000 crashes as well as two that resulted in fatalities — in New Providence and Mantua Township.
While several have argued that early dismissals and better preparedness from the state could have aided the situation, one needs to remember that “weather is inherently unpredictable;” some things just cannot be planned for.
So whether you spent the day curled up in bed, or sitting in traffic for hours along the turnpike, the worst is thankfully over, but there is sure to be more to come.
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