28 inches, 9 plows: Newark resources stretched thin during historic blizzard

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on February 02, 2016

Tracey Roudez, who lives on Baldwin Ave. in Newark, clears the area around her car. The avenue is completely closed to traffic because plows have never cleared the street.

 

NEWARK – If you were looking for reasons many of the city's streets remained filled with snow for days following a record-setting blizzard last week, it turns out you can count them on two hands.

During an appearance before the City Council Tuesday morning, Mayor Ras Baraka revealed that Newark – the largest city in New Jersey - had just nine vehicles for plowing and salting roads during a storm that paralyzed much of the city for days. By comparison, South Orange, with a population of just over 16,000, claims at least 30.

Baraka claimed the fleet was decimated as trucks were sold off following former Mayor Cory Booker's effort to privatize of the city's sanitation department in 2010, which eventually ended in hundreds of employees being laid off.

"Its shameful," he said. " If we tried to plow the snow ourselves we would be still plowing it (Tuesday)."

With so few resources of their own, officials were forced to lean heavily on outside contractors – though that also failed to go as planned.

The city approved contracts with 9 vendors in November 2014, setting aside up to $2.5 million in order to provide as many as 125 plows and 85 bucket trucks, front loaders and other equipment to assist with snow removal. According to officials, however, those deals do not require the contractors to commit all of those resources to Newark alone.

As well over two feet of snow blanketed the city, outside trucks supplied as many as 45 additional trucks, but the surprisingly heavy snowfall coupled with a bevy of disabled vehicles and citizens with urgent medical needs ultimately set the operation back until the state and emergency contractors stepped in to provide additional manpower, according to Neighborhood and Recreational Services Director Patrick Council.

"Unfortunately the conditions of the storm outweighed the resources that we had," he said.

Council members said they planned to pursue immediate action to address the city's lack of plowing and salting vehicles in hopes of avoiding similar issues, and the inevitable outcry from residents that accompanies them, in the future.

"If we have to do a bond in order to do that, then we need to do it," said Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins.

Baraka also said his administration would taken a new approach with plowing and snow removal vendors in hopes of securing contracts that would bind them to the city when it faces a significant storm.

"We have to outline specifically what we need. Not upon availability but 'we need this or nothing else,'" he said. "We will absolutely positively not allow this to happen again."

Baraka, Council and Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose were among a number of city officials summoned to the meeting to address the blizzard, including grievances regarding the city's communication and perceived preferential treatment for certain blocks and neighborhoods.

"There needs to be regular communication. The council should be a part of putting together the plan," said North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr. "We need to set realistic expectations for residents."

Unlike the aftermath of some blizzards past, exchanges between the city's executive body and officials remained cordial throughout the meeting. East Ward Councilman Augusto Amador offered a number of criticisms and handed over a list of recommendations on how responses might be improved, but stopped short of repeating an earlier call for Council's resignation.

Chaneyfield, however, suggested that the city examine whether asking a single director to oversee both recreation and neighborhood services (which includes snow removal), might be too tall an order. Council oversaw recreation for Newark Public Schools prior to being appointed Baraka in July 2014.

"It was too much for one person to do with a limited amount of trucks we had," Chaneyfield said.

Baraka continued his defense of the city's response, saying any amount of preparation likely would not have spared the city from a lengthy cleanup given the historic nature of the storm.

He counted a number of sympathizers on the council, including President Mildred Crump, who joined several of her colleagues in thanking those who played a role on the road back to normalcy.

"What happened last week was not an act of Mayor Baraka, it was not act of Director Ambrose, it was not an act of Fire Chief (John) Centanni," she said. "It was an act of God."

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