Combination of Recent Traffic, Weather Puts the Spotlight on Importance of Emergency Planning

By Gina G. Scala | Jul 17, 2019
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

Ship Bottom, NJ — A trifecta of traffic and weather events this summer is highlighting what anyone who has been on Long Beach Island and tried to leave has experienced firsthand: It’s crowded. And not the typical crowded of past summers, but what is sure to be the beginning of the new normal on this barrier island.

In less than a month, Ship Bottom saw the effects of a fatal accident in the area of 11th Street and Long Beach Boulevard that snarled traffic in the borough and farther south for more than four hours; a July 6 power outage on Route 72 westbound that further impacted seasonal turnover traffic that began in the morning and extended at least as far south as the Acme Market in Long Beach Township; and finally, a late-night, high-volume thunderstorm just last week.

“The same stuff happened 10, five, even two years ago,” Joe Valyo, emergency management coordinator for the borough, which as the gateway to LBI sees all the traffic coming onto and leaving the Island, said earlier this week.

The difference, he added, is the volume of people and cars. The transformation began in the wake of Superstorm Sandy devastating much of the Jersey Shore and prompting a state mandate for higher dunes in some areas that resulted in a change of aesthetics, more people and more cars.

“We have three times the volume we had 10 years ago,” Valyo said, noting all of it impacts emergency planning. “My evacuation plans are getting longer. Once, we planned for 14 to 17 hours to evacuate (on a summer Saturday in July or August). Now, it’s at least 24 to 48 hours. We’re not going to clear (the Island) in four hours on a changeover Saturday.”

Not that those plans would be put into effect for something as routine as summer Saturday traffic on a barrier island, he said.

“I don’t want to be the boy who cried wolf,” Valyo said of why emergency declarations weren’t made for any of the recent events, adding there are other factors that go into declaring an emergency. “On a perfect day, when there’s no rain, no accidents, it’s bumper-to-bumper.”

The logistics for finding ways to move people off the Island in the post-Superstorm Sandy world is challenging, he said.

“We have a high volume of people on the Island,” Valyo said. “And it’s not just here. Stafford Township has exploded (in population) in the last 10 years.”

Taking that into consideration, as well as weather and traffic conditions from as far west as Route 70 in Burlington County as well as on the Garden State Parkway, is all part of what goes into local contingency plans for mitigating traffic, he said.

“Can we do better?” he asked. “Yes. We’re always striving to be better. We’re looking at a lot of things to mitigate what we already have in place.”

Using the July 11 thunderstorm as an example, he said borough officials wanted to close the Causeway because Route 72 eastbound and westbound were “impassable. I don’t know what other word to use here,” Valyo said.

With traffic moving on the Causeway, motorists were unprepared for flood waters once they arrived at the entrance to the Island. Flooding was heaviest around the Barnegat Avenue area near CVS, he said.

“We have to mitigate what we had (going on) here,” he explained, “in order to do our due diligence. We have to make sure no one is going to be in harm’s way.”

Valyo called the July 11 thunderstorm “a significant event. It was not bay-related. It was a lot of rain in a short period of time that highlighted drainage issues.”

Cars were quickly submerged in the rain deluge, and because of the way new cars are built, air-tight for efficiency, they’re also more buoyant, according to Valyo.

“Lots of cars were floating,” he said, adding he was in the front area of the municipal building Thursday night when he saw three flatbed trucks traveling from the south end of the Island carrying three cars apiece. “It wasn’t just here.”

Six inches of water is all it takes to make a car weightless, thus movable. In 12 inches of water, cars can really move, Valyo said, adding that even in non-weather-related events, public safety is the ultimate goal of controlling traffic.

To accomplish that, he said he’s looking into whether controlling the flow of traffic by utilizing traffic signals differently than currently configured is viable and advisable. On the Boulevard, an Ocean County owned and maintained roadway, signals are used to allow for traffic flow and are synchronized, Valyo said. The traffic signals along Eighth and Ninth streets where they intersect with Central and Barnegat avenues, both Ocean County owned and maintained roads in that area, aren’t operated in the same manner. Part of the reason is because the state Department of Transportation owns and maintains all traffic signals along the Route 72 corridor. Both roads are considered part of that corridor.

Valyo believes if all the traffic signals are left green for a longer period of time, it would allow the maximum number of motorists to leave the Island, easing traffic on LBI. The downside, he said, is that it creates a problem for the mainland.

“We live on a barrier island. There is one road on and one road off,” he said, noting that once traffic begins to build on the Boulevard, nearly every motorist is fixated on finding an alternate route to bypass it. “They want to take shortcuts.”

Back roads and alternate routes once known almost exclusively to locals or long-time visitors have quickly become common knowledge for nearly every driver coming onto the Island. Instead of easing traffic congestion, as they once had, the shortcuts are only adding to it.

If social media is any indication, people want police officers on nearly every corner directing traffic to help with the congestion.

“The men and women on the road are doing a phenomenal job,” Valyo said. “We can’t ask them to do better. They’re dealing with such a (high) volume of people and cars. It’s non-stop. They don’t stop going from one call to another. And it’s not just here.”

Still, there are simple things that can be put into play, he said.

“Patience. Be more aware of your scheduling. If you’re a local, you know you’re not going to just run to the store for corn-on-the-cob on a summer Saturday, especially on a turnover week,” Valyo said of what the general public can do to help mitigate traffic. Also, “People need to be informed. The more information we can give them, the better everyone handles a situation.”

The truth is, he said, living on a barrier island with just one road on and one road off is a lot like a 10-gallon jug.

“We’re in the neck of the bottle,” Valyo said. “When you turn the bottle over, it’s slow getting started until it gets some air.”

— Gina G. Scala

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