Newark officials vow better prep after winter storm paralyzed city

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

Outbound commuters idled without moving for hours in a total gridlock that paralyzed Newark during what officials in Newark called the “perfect storm” on Nov. 15. Rush hour traffic backed up throughout the entire city after accidents on icy roads prompted the state to shut down Route 78, and more critically Route 280, which is Newark’s designated evacuation route.

“In our 30 years in law enforcement, we never remember 280, 78 closed down, 21, none of this,” said Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose.

“The minute 280 was closed, we should have declared an emergency in the city, period. We didn’t declare an emergency. We treated it like a regular traffic jam as opposed to an emergency situation, anticipating that the traffic would soon go back to normal,” said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.

By the time Newark actually mobilized, Baraka said cops could barely move around the city to direct traffic. Desperate motorists abandoned their cars in search of food, shelter and bathrooms. To avert a repeat crisis, whether natural or man-made, Baraka’s soliciting input and outlining an emergency response plan to minimize future gridlock. On the list: open the Office of Emergency Management and staff it with key stakeholders, and stagger hours of release for business, school and government agencies, instead of what the city actually did.

“We were literally in a meeting in city hall, looked out the window and said, ‘Let’s let everybody go.’ That was at 4 o’clock, so about that time we started letting everybody go and the city has about 3,000 employees itself,” Baraka said. “You have maybe 15,000, 20,000 employees in the city who don’t live here, trying to leave, who are stuck.”

Communication’s also critical. People stranded in cars got no information, so recommendations now include using robocalls and texts, notification on local radio and TV and social media platforms.

“I think the biggest thing was communication,” Ambrose said, “and I think we all in this room, and I will take responsibility, could communicate better, and we should give alerts right out about what we’re doing and be very transparent.”

The mayor also wants to identify temporary parking locations for people to leave their cars and shelters to offer them safe havens. He requested schools, government buildings, stores and corporate headquarters to step up and volunteer to keep their buildings open into the evening if necessary.

“We close, everybody runs out of the town at 5 o’clock, we close and the city is closed. We have to be open for business. We’re trying to get the city open for business anyway, but in an emergency we want to have designated places that we know are going to be open, so we communicate that to people,” Baraka said. “We need people to volunteer to open their places up and allow us to make those things happen.”

City officials assembled a task force to coordinate and implement the solutions discussed Monday. There’s no deadline set, but hopefully it’s pulled together before the next gridlock event.