New Jersey Stage

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Three Miles to Home (Or how the government failed me)

by Gary Wien

People get abandoned and ignored by the government all of the time.  I've always known this, but on the day after Christmas I became one of the abandoned and ignored...

My wife and I, along with our dog, left to spend Christmas in Virginia on Thursday.  The weather was a concern, but at the time, reports of a big snowstorm kept coming and going.  Early reports that said New Jersey was going to get hit hard were followed by an increasing number of reports that believed the storm was going to be pushed farther east into the Atlantic Ocean.  The news was pretty much the same on Friday, but Saturday's forecasts began to agree that the storm was coming and it would hit the coast hard.  We planned to leave Sunday morning with a route that kept up west enough that we would bypass any snow until we reached the Delaware Memorial Bridge area.  We knew that the Philadelphia region was expected to be hit with much of the same storm so we tried our best to get through that area before the storm picked up steam. 

We made it through Virginia and Maryland without hitting any snow at all and didn't hit much in Pennsylvania until the very end, as we had hoped.  The final 20 miles before the Delaware Memorial Bridge was harsh, but drive-able since the road was continuously being plowed.  It was as I expected -- bad driving conditions limiting your speed to 20 or 30 miles per hour, but enough to keep you moving.

We entered New Jersey and went through the New Jersey Turnpike toll booth without seeing any warnings of state notices.  I'm guessing we must have entered the Turnpike sometime after 7pm.  According to news reports, the Acting Governor of New Jersey issued a State of Emergency around 6pm, but the notice wasn't made public until two hours later.   That's one example of how poorly the state handled this situation.  Why in the world does an emergency notice take two hours to become known? A friend that checked out the New Jersey Department of Transportation website as soon as he heard of the declaration said he didn't see any mention of the State of Emergency there as well.

Nice job of letting people know, huh?

The New Jersey Turnpike was packed with drivers, all driving maybe 25 miles per hour, like I figured it would be.  Thinking back, I wonder just how many of the other drivers had any idea the State of Emergency was in effect.  Wouldn't you have thought that the Turnpike might have put up a sign or used the existing signs to alert drivers of the Emergency ban?  Considering my exit is just beyond one of the rest areas, if they had truly wanted cars off the road they could have put up signs steering us to the rest area.  The rest area parking lot would have been far better than where most of the drivers would wind up spending the night.

It took a while to reach the 7B exit, but I still felt we were on pace to be home by 9pm or so.  The problem was that somewhere between the time of being on the New Jersey Turnpike and starting out on 195 East, the State of Emergency for New Jersey apparently kicked in.  It was at that time that the plows stopped plowing, police and rescue workers were no longer seen, and anyone on the road at the time was deemed "non-essential".

I understand the idea behind issuing a state of emergency, but if there was ever a worse time to issue one I can't think of it.  The Christmas weekend is one of the top two most travelled days of the year.  What the State was basically saying was that they believed the roads were too dangerous for their workers to be on and the thousands already on the roads were on their own.  See, that's what most people don't understand – at the time the plows stopped plowing, thousands of vehicles were still on the road.  Nobody tried helping the people off the road, nobody tried forcing them off the road, and nobody tried giving them a road to work with.  Everything would have been fine if they had just kept plowing.  Instead, vehicle after vehicle wound up being caught in the snow.

We first stopped when we hit some sort of a traffic jam about five miles from home.  Nobody really knew what the cause was and, at the time, we didn't have any idea that the roads had been abandoned by the state.  Ironically, we were just behind a snow plow that we had been following for several miles.  Something was blocking the plow from going any further.  All we could see was a bunch of vehicles up ahead.  I can't remember how long we were stuck there but I think it was about an hour and a half.  During this time, my wife and I kept trying to keep the front window clean from the snow and ice which was gathering quicker and quicker.  We wanted to be ready once the vehicles starting moving again.  We also had to keep shoveling snow from around the car.  And then it happened.  Cars quickly began moving while my wife was outside the car clearing off some ice.  I think we may have been in panic mode at the time.  She told me to start going.  She knew our only hope was to stay close to that snow plow and its blinking lights.  I could barely see much of anything but I started moving the car and following the flashing lights.  I tried driving slow, hoping she would be able to hop in but she was left behind.  I think she was helping the car behind me shovel some snow by its wheel.  She apparently gave them the shovel and tried catching up to me.

I managed to drive another mile or two before I lost sight of the plow.  It had apparently turned off at the exit for the Parkway South (not the direction I wanted) and got stuck in the snow.  While driving I was yelling my wife's name, trying desperately to hear from her.  I wished to God I hadn't gone anywhere until she got into the car.  At this time, I was stressed out of my mind and not thinking clearly.  I honestly thought I'd never see her again.  I hit a huge pile of snow and the car stopped.  As I got out of the car, the snow just up ahead on the road must have been around two feet.  None of the area looked as if it had been plowed in quite some time.  The entire road was covered without even the slightest hint that a plow had left a mark anywhere.  It appeared as if the plows had gone just up to a mile prior and then left via the exit ramp.

Thankfully, my wife showed up – panting and nauseous from running the past mile in the driving snow.  I was so upset at leaving her, but she was apparently much more rational than I was.  She kept saying she knew she would catch up with me sometime.  Little did we know that where we were was going to be our home for the night.  We grabbed a blanket from the trunk and tried warming up.

We had made it as far as three miles from home and were stuck just ahead of the sign for Belmar.  A crowd of vehicles were behind me hoping I could keep going because my car was blocking them.  Some guys tried helping me, but I knew it wasn't going to work.  I kept telling them to look at the road up ahead.  I'm driving a Volkswagen Jetta and the snow was two feet high – far too high for me to drive across.  It took several minutes but I finally convinced them that their only chance was to drive around my car.  Since somebody far behind us had our shovel, I began clearing a path for the others by kicking snow and moving ice blocks with my hands.  One or two people helped, but most didn't.  They apparently didn't want to be the one to drive first even though their vehicles were SUVs and trucks and mine was just a small car.  All I knew is that there was no way I was going to be able to go even three feet before being stranded again and it didn't make much sense to try, but if I could get a few trucks to go ahead of me they might burn off enough snow to give me a chance.

My feet were freezing.  I was only wearing dress shoes at the time and it was around 25 degrees.  I can only guess at what the wind chill was – probably something in the low single digits.  My hands were freezing as my gloves were soaked.  I just kept kicking and throwing piles and piles of snow until there was a decent sized path for them.   Finally, someone tried the path.  It was difficult, but a van behind me managed to drive on through.  It was followed by a truck and then another truck.  Despite their confidence that they could make it, every one of the vehicles behind me wound up getting stuck just a couple hundred feet from where I was.

After clearing the path, I jumped into the car.  My hands were literally burning because they were so cold.  I worried about frostbite.  I took my gloves off and placed them under the heating ducts and buried my hands in the blanket.  After about 5 minutes, they started to feel better.  Meanwhile, bits and pieces from M*A*S*H and war movies filtered into my mind.  I knew I needed to keep my feet as dry as possible.  So I grabbed some clothing from my suitcase and began switching my socks and shoes.  I changed my shirt and used the Sunday Washington Post newspaper to give us something dry to sit on.  The car was literally filled with small pieces of ice from all of the times the doors and windows had been opened during the storm, so anything dry was better than before.

Somehow during all of this our dog was perfectly fine.  I'm still amazed at how calm she was.  We just wrapped her up in the blanket and she slept in between both of us.  As stranger after stranger came to the car, she remained calm.  I wish I could say the same about myself, but I knew how bad the situation was.  My wife tried to reassure me that we were only a few miles from home and everything was going to be alright, but my mind kept focusing on the fact that I hadn't seen a single police officer or rescue squad member in hours; nor had we seen any snow plows or any sign that anybody was trying to do anything with the roads.

We decided it was best for us to stay where we were and focus on making it through the night.  There was an exit ramp a few feet from us, which we hoped would bring about some snow plows or help in the future.  It was about 9:30pm at the time.  There were about 4-5 vehicles stranded up ahead of us and 4-5 stranded behind us.  Within the next few hours we'd see a few vehicles come off us the exit ramp and get stuck up in the road.  A few people came from behind us on 195 and generally got stuck right next to us.  I heard accents from around the world – Russians, Mexicans, and Jamaicans were just some of the voices we encountered that night.  Everybody that got stuck would eventually get past us, but there was a huge truck that not only got stuck but seemed to get closer and closer to our car as it tried moving.  I was worried it was going to either spin out and hit us or tip over.  Finally, it made it through.

And then we waited... and waited.

Sometime around 10:30pm we realized we would have to start keeping an eye on the car's battery and fuel.  We decided to run the engine for 10-15 minutes at a time every hour.  Since there were people not far behind us, I decided to kill the flashers as well.  We were lucky that my wife's mother had given us some food and water, the blanket, and the shovel before we headed out.    The blanket kept us somewhat warm in between the engine uses and it wasn't difficult keeping to an hourly schedule since neither one of us could sleep in the situation.  Unfortunately, we both realized we would have to go to the bathroom sometime.  It was definitely more difficult for my wife, but we both wound up getting through it and managed to get the dog to go once as well.

Hour after hour came and went.  I'd turn on the engine and try heating up the car as much as possible.  We were lucky to have a diesel car as it meant we were never in danger of running out of fuel.  Others were not so lucky.  I can't remember when the snow finally stopped falling, but I think it was probably around 3am or so.  All I know is that absolutely nothing changed once the storm was over, the road was still abandoned and we were all still stuck and on our own.

Sometime in the night the person who had our shovel caught up to us and gave it back!  I tried helping to clear more of a path for them to make it through as the snow had drifted and erased much of the path we had made.  They were only trying to make it to the next exit and were sure they could get there.  We helped them get past our vehicle only to see them get stuck just up ahead along with the others.

Every time we cranked up the engine we would listen to NJ 101.5 and try to hear the news.  It was interesting to hear how the radio station changed its tune about the storm after a while.  In the beginning, the station was sort of pushing the state's line that every vehicle on the road was nothing more than a hindrance to the recovery efforts.  People simply shouldn't be on the roads.  After a while, they began hearing from more and more people stranded on the roads of Monmouth and Ocean counties.  I'll never forget the moment the host suddenly "got it".  A caller was telling him how they had been stranded on some state road for 10 hours.  The host was amazed.  Apparently the police reports or whatever was feeding the radio station information had no idea that people had been stranded overnight.  They thought we all simply decided to go driving early Monday morning.  The host asked if anybody (police, rescue workers, etc.) had approached his vehicle to see if he needed food, water, or fuel.  The caller said nobody had come by.  Like us, the caller said he hadn't even seen any police, rescue, or plows for hours and hours. 

That sort of changed the tune for the radio host and his tune was further changed when he spoke with the station's weatherman, who was the first to start blaming the state's reaction to the storm.  He said the government had several hours to start helping out in which they didn't.  He also pointed out that this was Christmas weekend, a time when tons of people were already on the road and wondered why the state failed to realize that.  After hearing the host paint everyone on the roads as a villain for hours, it felt good to have someone portray our side for once.

As the sun rose, we began seeing signs of life.  Vehicles from either the county or the state began showing up, surveying the situation.  Each time I saw one I turned on the flashers or got out to make sure they knew people were there.  Several police officers were seen, yet never stopped to talk to any of us who were stranded.  Somewhat ironically, the other side of the street started having plow after plow come through even though nobody was on that road and the side we were on had dozens of vehicles.  We could see plow trucks taking care of the Parkway from where we were as well – just not our side of the road.

I decided to clear the block of snow and ice from the exit ramp.  I could just tell that nobody was going to be sent to clear the roads; we had to do it ourselves.  Down the road I noticed a snow plow had showed up and was clearing a part of the road.  I began to shovel faster.  While removing the block of snow, a man with a Jamaican accent came up to me and offered to help create a path and get me on to the road if I'd let him borrow the shovel afterwards.  He believed, as I did, that nobody was going to help us and we had to all help each other.  I agreed and the path was created.  It took a few attempts for my car to get going since there was so much ice underneath the vehicle, but eventually I was able to swing through the opening and headed up the road to where a bunch of vehicles were lined up.

We had probably moved 150-200 feet, but it felt good to be anywhere else.  There were about six vehicles ahead of us and another six buried in snow nearby.  The plow had apparently created a wall separating the vehicles in line from those left stranded.  The Jamaican's SUV was one of the stranded.  Using our shovel he was able to break a hole in that wall and eventually get the vehicle on to the path.  He then proceeded to help out his friend's car right behind him and ultimately helped two or three others.  Thinking back, I bet our shovel must have helped at least a dozen people in those 24 hours.

Sometime within an hour we began moving – actually moving!  As we began heading towards Belmar I told my wife we should just pull off and stay at the hotel on 138 and wait for the streets to be cleared, but we didn't get that chance.  The final half of the road towards Belmar was blocked off.  We turned left at the traffic light and just tried following the vehicles ahead of us.  I wasn't really sure where we were headed but we finally swung around to Belmar Boulevard.  The roads were awful.   I guess you could say they were plowed, but they still had two feet of snow or more outside of the grooves you had to focus on.  I was determined not to stop, knowing that any stoppage there might get me stuck yet again.  We made it all the way to the lake by Belmar's marina (the intersection of Belmar Boulevard and 16th Avenue/Route 35 traffic light) when we found ourselves in a line of about 10 cars or so.  Judging from the road up ahead, the town had JUST STARTING plowing Route 35 at 11am!  I couldn't believe it.  The snow had ended at least 7 hours before, what were they waiting for?

We eventually made it through the line and kept pressing on.  We got up to just before the railroad tracks when we were stopped behind a couple of vehicles caught in the snow.  The area was incredibly unplowed with high drifts of snow everywhere.  Up ahead, we could see them trying to plow Main Street.  It was noon by this time and Belmar was a complete disaster area.  Trucks were seen sliding all over the place.  The railroad lights came on, but the train got stuck at the Belmar station down the road.   There was a guy with a Russian accent in front of me stuck in the snow.   There was a bit of room to go around his car, but the snow was still too high for my car to make it so I began clearing a path with my feet again (the shovel was never recovered from 195, but since it continued to help people there we didn't really mind).  I figured if a couple of the trucks could go through the path it might help my chances a bit.  It did help, but not as much as I hoped.  Eventually I got up to the tracks.   The Russian and his son were there clearing a path.  He said neither of our cars would make it over the tracks unless we cleared a path and helped each other.  So I helped him move away some snow and we were able to get a guy walking through town to help us push the car.  The car moved a few feet then stopped.  We pushed again and moved it a few more feet.  A third huge push and we were able to get it over the tracks and down the street.  And then it was my turn.

I was able to get my car moving and the Russian directed me through the train tracks.  Once past the tracks, I kept moving until I noticed that Main Street was still a complete disaster.  I turned to the right trying to find a place to park the car but there wasn't any.  All of the lots were filled with snow and Main Street was down to just one lane – not one lane in each direction, but one lane overall.  All we wanted to do was rest a few minutes while they plowed the streets.  We stopped off at a convenience store but the owner wouldn't let us keep the car in the lot, so we got back on the road.  None of the streets headed to the ocean had been plowed yet (this was around 1pm on Monday) but 13th Avenue looked somewhat passable.   It turns out it wasn't.

After a brief stretch of clear road, my car hit a bank of snow and that was the end.  The street beyond that bank of snow was completely untouched.  I knew that even if I moved the car there was no way I'd be able to go anywhere.  I thought about going in reverse back to Main Street but the car was wedged too tightly in the bank.  Later on I heard the news that the town wasn't even attempting to plow secondary streets.  I still wonder who thought that was a smart idea.  The town became even more of a mess because people who were out couldn't get home, which meant more cars (like mine) stuck on the roads.

Eventually, we decided to just put the flashers on, grab a few things, and walk home.  I came back to check on the car later that night but the road was still untouched.  We called the police and let them know the situation and they said the car wouldn't get a ticket.  Tuesday came and went and the streets in Belmar were in the same shape as the day before.  Finally on Wednesday, I called AAA to have them come give me a jump and help me get moving again.  I was told AAA would be able to get to me in two hours, so I headed back to the car armed with two shovels.  The car was completely encased in blocks of snow and ice.  I spent every minute up until when AAA showed up clearing the snow and ice as fast as I could.  The jump got the engine back on and I was able to get away from the rest of the snow and turn around back to Main Street.  I took a brief drive around to see if there were any streets plowed at all and headed down the one that looked the most promising.  Even three days later, the town was practically untouched.  I managed to find a parking place a block from home and walked back to start shoveling the 10-15 feet from the center of the street to my driveway that was completely untouched.

All of the news reports from the past few days always stressed how stranded cars were the problem yet we had three full blocks without any cars that could have been plowed and weren't.  When we called up the public works department to let them know, they told us the next shift for plowing would be at midnight.  I think this is why people like me are furious.  It's one thing if you see the town/county/state working their butts off to get the situation under control and it's another thing if you don't see anything happening at all.  During the afternoon on Wednesday, I didn't see a single snow plow working on the streets and saw only one truck sanding one individual street.  The town gave the impression it was content waiting until midnight, but, of course, midnight came and they didn't do anything then either.  That was just another lie.

This storm was a failure on every single level.  I've read quotes from county and town officials who said the snow removal equipment they had simply was overwhelmed by the storm.  That's PRECISELY why the dumbest move of all was to stop plowing on Sunday night.  At times like this you need your government to shine; instead, ours came crashing down.  Rather than fight through the storm by plowing continuously and having rescue workers manning the roads, the government felt it was better to simply give up and try the following day.  It also meant the government put the lives of everyone on the roads in danger.  Simply saying cars are banned from the road doesn't make the cars already on the road simply disappear.  It just hides the problem.  I'm sure most of the drivers I was stranded alongside would agree with me that if the roads were just plowed even somewhat, we would have all made it home.  And, if we had known the state was going to simply give up we would have pulled over somewhere for the night. 

The Governor hoped that declaring a State of Emergency would simply make the problem go away but it doesn't work like that.  It's a ridiculous idea to think it would have worked on a regular weekend and an even more foolish one during Christmas weekend when you know thousands of people will be on the roads.  If they really wanted to have the State of Emergency work it should have been declared LONG BEFORE the snow even started – not right in the midst of the storm.

I hope this lets you understand just how much the government screwed up.  You undoubtedly will hear government officials place the blame on the cleanup on vehicles abandoned in the roads.  Well, I can honestly tell you that the government was directly at blame for these abandoned vehicles.  Not only did they cause the problems but they failed to do anything about it.  Nobody asked the people in the vehicles if they needed any assistance; nobody checked to see if there were any children or elderly in the cars.  People told me that we were supposed to call 911 for help.  Well, what if your cell phone battery was dead? You can't simply have people reach out for help during situations like this, you need to have people making sure there aren't people who need help.

The only people to help us were a bunch of immigrants that all have a strong distrust of the government.  Together, we all knew nobody was going to help us, so we helped each other.  After this experience, my distrust of the government has grown exponentially.  I'm tired of hearing how hard the state worked during this storm.  I was stranded on a state interstate and didn't see anyone working for over 12 hours. My hope is that we'll soon hear from some of the other "non-essentials" about their experiences as well.  The truth needs to be known...