“I couldn’t have been more happy,” said Mayor Michael Gonnelli about how Secaucus fared after Winter Storm Jonas dumped an estimated 27-plus inches of snow on the town. “We had an awesome plan in place and it went like clockwork. It was an inconvenience but couldn’t have gone any smoother for us as an organization.”
And that was due to experience and extensive preparation. Two meetings were held in advance of the storm to come up with comprehensive plans for dealing with all eventualities. Several more meetings were held during the storm itself and in its wake.
Afterwards, about 30 plow trucks hit the streets, 12 of them with spreaders to de-ice the pavement. Approximately 60 individuals got to work digging out the town.
Municipal lots were quickly cleared and residents were invited to park there for free to allow plowing of the streets.
“The second phase we carted away the snow,” said Gonnelli. Municipal trucks and hired contractors hauled off massive amounts of the white stuff, dumping it in Mill Creek Point for the north end of town, while snow from south and center of town was carted off to the former Field Station: Dinosaurs parking lot.
Meanwhile residents hit the streets themselves to clear off sidewalks and driveways. “Students from Secaucus High School were out in full force,” said Principal Robert “Dr. Bob” Berckes, “helping residents dig out from Storm Jonas. No matter what street you were on you could find high school students helping people shovel out the snow. They were happy, generous of their time, and above all most respectful to the residents.”
As the former superintendent of the Secaucus Department of Public Works from the mid 1980s until 2006, Gonnelli was uniquely qualified to lead the preparations for the storm. “That kind of experience allows me to function a lot differently than other mayors would have,” he said.
Although this was the biggest individual blizzard in recent years, it’s hardly the worst to hit Secaucus. “The worst I ever faced was a nor’easter in 1996,” said Gonnelli. “That time there was not only a lot of snow, with some prior snow already on the ground, but there was also flooding.”
“We had an awesome plan in place and it went like clockwork. It was an inconvenience but couldn’t have gone any smoother for us as an organization.” – Mayor Michael Gonnelli
“Every [drain] pipe that led to the river, we went out and put baffles so the water couldn’t come back,” said Gonnelli. “We did that in dozens of locations. Also the pumps were ready to be moved.”
Other preparations included setting up multiple large generators in Town Hall, Huber Street School, the library, and the OEM. A triage and shelter was established at Huber Street School, and the emergency army vehicle acquired by the town via a grant was prepped and ready to go in case it was necessary to transport any residents.
Luckily, none of those were needed.
“We manned every firehouse with volunteers through the duration of the storm,” said Gonnelli, and several calls did come in, including what turned out to be a truck on fire in the inside lot at Xchange.
Another important step was to place fully-manned Meadowlands Hospital EMS units at four locations throughout town to reduce response time in the event of an emergency. “We had between eight and 10 calls at the height of the storm,” said Gonnelli, including a pregnant woman with appendicitis. Additional calls came in from people experiencing chest pains after shoveling. “We were able to respond very quickly,” he noted.
Secaucus is unique
Because Gov. Christopher Christie declared a state of emergency, Secaucus should be able to recoup some of the expenses incurred by the storm prep and cleanup. Gonnelli is also hoping FEMA money will be made available.
“We’re challenged probably more than a lot of locations,” said Gonnelli. “Secaucus is very unique. We’re bigger than most Hudson County towns in land mass. We’re surrounded by water which leaves us very susceptible to flooding.”
The town also sports two major highways running through town and the second busiest train station in the state, in addition to numerous hotels. “People flock to those, especially when mass transit is your only option,” said Gonnelli. “A lot of people stayed here. There was a huge event at the convention center that was canceled on Saturday.” The two-day Heroes & Villains convention was allowed to run on Sunday as scheduled.
The timing of the storm may actually have been fortuitous, limiting incidents or injuries. “People typically get stuck out in the snow,” said Gonnelli. “We didn’t have any vehicles trapped. This was a really big snowstorm but it fell on a weekend.”
Gonnelli also credits the residents themselves for being smart throughout the ordeal. “That’s the most positive thing about this community,” he said. “People listen. They heed instructions in 99.9 percent of cases.”
That meant paying attention to the information and instructions provided over the Swift Reach 911 notification system utilized by the town during emergencies and other events. It was used four or five times over the course of the weekend to provide critical updates to residents as needed. It has also been used recently to convey important information about power outages, water main breaks, and major traffic problems.
Residents can sign up for Swift Reach 911 by visiting the town website at secaucusnj.gov and clicking on the link in the left column.
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.