While visiting my parents on eastern Long Island (LI) Christmas Day, I checked the weather for Sunday and Monday to determine my return home. To my surprise I found winter storm warnings suggesting 6 to 12 inches of snow in Philly and a broader range for LI (they weren’t sure yet). We did not hear of a major storm on Wednesday or on Saturday. (On a side note, I read a blog entry from a local meteorologist explaining the short notice http://www.nbcphiladelphia.com/weather/stories/Predcition-Prcess-Snow-Storm-112456029.html.) We all agreed I could leave Christmas Night or check the weather early Sunday morning and leave then or Tuesday, after the storm ended late Monday afternoon. As I did not want to leave then I prepared for an early morning departure. On Sunday I inferred I would be driving into the full force of the storm and thus waited until Tuesday. Both my dad and stepmom Jeanne postponed their trip Monday to NY until Tuesday given the storm. (To briefly explain my acronyms, NY to refers to New York City and NYS to the State of New York.)
This blizzard had impressive wind gusts blowing snow horizontally, and I hypnotized myself watching the snow dart by the light emanating across the street. In watching I decided to observe more storms in the future, as watching nature’s roar supplies a cathartic effect. I refused to consider Monday’s great dig while utilizing this opportunity to savor the moment.
Monday I awoke to a pristine, blinding blanket of snow to spoil. In clearing the driveway of the accumulation of 10-12 inches (possibly 15 inches), I learned such winds heavily compress snow towards the bottom. Also, the snow goes EVERYWHERE. In clearing the porch we swept the snow from windows, the posts holding the roof, in corners, off furniture, etc. Usually only the horizontal areas toward the edge of the porch need cleaning. When clearing the driveway, My dad preferred making “igloo blocks” where he used the shovel to slice a cube in the snow and then removed the snow in two parts. I preferred shoveling the top half and breaking the bottom denser half into quarters, but I integrated the igloo blocks as the day progressed.
With the driveway sufficiently cleared Jeanne completed two errands. When she returned she told of the challenges in driving with everyone throwing snow from driveways onto the roads the plows continued clearing, forcing additional caution and anticipating roads in various states of being cleared. The post office did not have mail to deliver that day, and the grocery stores lacked large quantities of food. These aspects somewhat surprised us, but how could anyone drive or receive deliveries while the storm had made transportation impossible?
Stories throughout Monday indicated NY transportation came to a halt. Many of the subway lines emerging from underground outside of Manhattan were incapacitated; the Long Island (LIRR) and Metro North (Metro-North) Railroads could not run; major airports would not reopen until no earlier than 4 pm. People told of sitting in subway cars for six hours. Many subways, buses, ambulances, and cars were stranded throughout the city and on bridges because the roads had not been plowed; while the plow trucks could not clear major and side roads because of the vacated vehicles. The emergency system had been backed up for hours. Residents of Brooklyn and Queens were furious. Ironically, Broadway did not cancel any shows.
On Tuesday, we checked conditions for our trips. The majority of LIRR lines remained suspended, my dad’s line included. All major routes showed slow traffic due to slick conditions and plowing. Many of the subway lines remained out of commission in the outer boroughs, and people needed help getting dug out of the snow on the bridges. Many ambulances had been extracted from the snow but were once again stuck. Dad suggested leaving at 10 instead of 9 am, and I agreed given the challenging conditions and the expectation of a late rush hour.
Before I describe my adventure and observations, let me give you my preferred route. I first use the Northern State Parkway until reaching the Cross Island Parkway. The Northern State runs along the north half of Suffolk and Nassau Counties by the Long Island Expressway (LIE); in NYS, parkways are highways excluding commercial traffic. The Cross Island hugs the border between Queens and Nassau and delineates the Southern State Parkway from the Belt Parkway. The Southern State is similar to the Northern State but does not lie near the LIE (although it is not used today except as a reference to the Belt). The Belt continues the southern trek of Brooklyn and Queens to connect to the Verrazano Bridge (spanning between Staten Island and Brooklyn) while passing Kennedy Airport. After the Verrazano, I drive the Staten Island Expressway to State Route 440 for the Outerbridge Crossing, one of two bridges from Staten Island to New Jersey. Generally from 440 I use either the New Jersey Turnpike or US Route 1 until I change to the Pennsylvania Turnpike and finally Interstate 476, also known as the Blue Route. Typically my trip runs for 3.25 hours because I leave at odd hours.
While in Suffolk County, LI’s eastern-most county, the roads seemed navigable. Some stretches of road had additional layers of snow but were otherwise manageable. Snow blocked the shoulders, making entering and exiting roads difficult. Highway officials and the media warned drivers about less clear on- and off-ramps. However, Suffolk County had few challenges.
The next county west, Nassau County, foreboded a more awkward trip. While driving the LIE and the Northern State I found several right lanes partially or totally blocked; the two left-most lanes (and if there were an HOV lane) remained clear. Traffic slowed upon reaching these randomly-spaced stretches of inconsistent lengths. I started to understand the frustration of NY residents and why multiple cars still needed aid.
As I progressed from Brooklyn and Queens onto Staten Island, this pattern continued with seemingly greater frequency. At one point near Kennedy I noticed no cars heading eastbound on the Belt Parkway, while the westbound lanes crawled forward. I found all three lanes blocked by police and emergency crews to pull a truck off a steep incline. A few minutes later, traffic again slowed down. To my great shock this time only ONE lane was cleared. Sometimes the snow covered all or part of the left lane, requiring me to switch lanes. Only one of two lanes for the exit from the Belt to the Verrazano Bridge was cleared. The Staten Island Expressway also had a few points without a full third lane, but was otherwise better than the Belt.
I found the NJ Turnpike backed up close to the exit for US 1, therefore I switched roads. On the one hand, the NJ Turnpike was bound to have all lanes cleared throughout but is extremely popular; US 1 is less congested (and free) but is usually slower due to stop lights. At the beginning of that stretch of my journey US 1 compared to Queens and Staten Island, but as I moved SSW the snow amounts dropped. Finally I reached Pennsylvania, where the roads had little to no snow left to plow. My trip took over five hours. I discovered snow started around 2 pm in the Philadelphia area; therefore I would have made it home safely on Sunday morning.
While driving I heard Mayor Bloomberg’s press conference, accounting for the number of vehicles in use, how many buses were running, the strides to reduce the backlog of emergency responses, and the number of ambulances stuck. While this data provided actual statistics it did not clarify percentages of the number of vehicles normally used to clear the city. Meteorologists indicated this was the 6th worst storm on record for Central Park, but the 2nd worst had happened in February 2010. Therefore I understand the exasperation of NY’s residents. I did not visit in February, but I do not recall hearing how crippling this storm was for NY. To be fair, I was focused on how that storm impacted ME in the Philly area (actually, two storms accumulating more than two feet within five days of each other and the second storm pushing a tree over my car). However, from what I remember Dad and Jeanne had maintained a normal course, and they frequently go into NY (Dad goes at least once weekly).
Part of the trouble stems from the storm falling the day after Christmas as people start venturing home or vacation elsewhere, explaining the high frustration at the airports. However, why weren’t the airports or city efficiently cleared by Tuesday? No one would have expected the highways to have reduced lanes due to snow. NYC usually has most streets at least partially plowed if not mostly cleared except for slush. Did the city and airports give too many people vacation time? Had they decided to rely on private companies for these situations and these businesses let their employees take a vacation, resulting in an absence of manpower? Also, people had approximately 24 hours or less notice that the 26th would have a major winter storm, which gives the city and airports little notice to reach people selected to be on call or to otherwise prepare. Many people possibly did not learn about the storm until it hit, thus explaining the stranded vehicles. We should recognize that stranded vehicles make it difficult for the snow plows to complete their job.
With these questions as well as what others derive, the outcome of determining what happened to make this storm such a disaster should interest all city and airport managers, as well as residents of NY.