Central New Jersey receives, on average, approximately 30 inches of snow each winter. While all winter storms are dangerous, and every few years we are hit by a crippling blizzard, for the most part, New Jersey handles its winter weather well. Yet, on November 15, 2018, central and northern New Jersey and the New York City area received anywhere from 2-8 inches of snow and sleet, and it brought the entire region to its knees. Why? Surprisingly, I believe the blame should be assigned to – everyone. And I believe everyone has a role to play in ensuring it doesn’t happen again.
I have a degree in meteorology from Rutgers University. While I am not employed as a weather forecaster, I do produce an online daily 5-day weather forecast for central New Jersey each morning. As such, I am often asked about upcoming storms, and I do my best to give a forecast based on the current information I have. This storm was tricky. Earlier in the week, I suggested that there could be wintry conditions on Thursday but didn’t think it would be a major problem. But as the week went on and the forecast began to take shape, it did appear as though a more significant wintry event was likely. By Wednesday, at least to me, it became clear that we would begin to have snowfall by noon on Thursday, and that it would change to sleet and then rain by nighttime. Every forecast I watched or read suggested something similar. They all differed on exact intensity of snow, and most including my own, suggested 1-3” as the likely range.
This remained the case until the morning of the storm. When I did my forecast, my initial snow range that morning was 2-5” as the level of intensity had clearly increased, and the cold air was firmly in place. As I often do in winter storms, I checked the National Weather Service forecast before posting my own, just to make sure I wasn’t wildly off-base. When I saw that most of central New Jersey was still in a 1-2” range of snow according to them, with more sleet, I reviewed the weather model data to see if I had missed something. The only thing I could see was that the 500-850 millibar thickness, which is a measure of the warm air in the middle atmosphere, suggested that a significant amount of warm air would be present at those middle levels, which gave me pause. Would there be more sleet than snow? I didn’t think so. The depth of cold air at the surface seemed strong. But since the snow was falling during the afternoon (which tends to keep snow totals down), and the National Weather Service had a lower total, and because I figured that paved surfaces would all be well treated with salt and chemicals, I lowered my forecast to 2-3” of snow, with periods of sleet.
New Jersey officials including Governor Murphy, have largely blamed the disastrous conditions on weather forecasters. They have said that the forecasts were bad, and as such, they could not have been adequately prepared. This is nonsense. Even if our state only received 2 inches of snow and a layer of sleet and ice on top as the lower forecast suggested – if this fell on untreated surfaces, it would still create the nightmare we saw on Thursday. Any frozen precipitation that falls on untreated surfaces turn those surfaces dangerously slippery. Of course, since many areas received so much more snow and sleet than the lower forecast, the problems were compounded. The fact is: no storm can be taken lightly in the winter. There was no excuse for the New Jersey Department of Transportation to be as unprepared as they were. Roads were not treated, plows were not ready.
Once the snow began falling, it fell heavy. By 2:00 or 3:00 pm, when so many offices and schools were closing, roads were becoming impassible. At that point, better communication of the growing disaster was needed. This is my only criticism of police and local officials. As I sat in my car for five hours, I desperately searched for information from local police on Twitter, Facebook and local websites. There was so little useful and current information, that I gave up. Now, to be clear, officers were certainly out on the roads, working their hardest, and putting their own safety at risk, helping clear the hundreds of traffic accidents that turned our highways into parking lots. I have no criticism of those hardworking officers. But I feel like our towns – either police, or other emergency officials – need to do a better job of communicating with the public about road conditions, road closures, and other facts using social media and their websites, in real time. I felt abandoned by those I expect to help keep me safe, as I sat there alone in my car in the dark.
And finally, everyone has their own roles to play in these events. First, keep up to date on weather forecasts. Don’t glance at your phone two days before a storm and expect that you know the latest information – weather is complex and dynamic. It changes from day to day, hour to hour. Be informed and then act accordingly. This might mean staying home when a storm is forecast. But, most importantly, it means driving carefully in wintry conditions. Obviously, if the roads are untreated, as they were in this case, then even driving on an inch or two of snow and sleet is extremely dangerous. Most people would not have expected the untreated surfaces, and were not as cautious as they should have been. Lives can be saved if we all are more careful.
Ultimately, what happened on November 15 is highly unlikely to happen again soon. But we can all ensure such a nightmare is avoided by taking precautions, being informed, making better decisions, and never taking any winter storm lightly.