“We’re going to die on this bus,” said New Jersey residents Sam Tedeschi and Nick Leonard, peering out the window to see abandoned, snow-topped cars and heavy snowfall pelting the highway.
Thursday afternoon, Tedeschi and Leonard eagerly boarded a New York-bound bus with the intent to visit New Paltz. What they didn’t see coming, however, was the eight-hour long expedition they were about to encounter.
Leaving the New York City Port Authority Bus Terminal at 4 p.m., Tedeschi and Leonard were projected to arrive in New Paltz at 5:35 p.m. Instead, their bus pulled into the New Paltz Trailways Bus Station at 12:25 a.m.
“The traffic was so bad that our driver had enough time to go to the bathroom and come back, and we haven’t moved,” Tedeschi said. “We kept alternating between crawling along and being completely stopped.”
Leonard equated the storm to an apocalypse— “It looked like it was out of a movie with the amount of snow and empty or stuck cars.”
Thursday marked the first snowstorm of the season to hit the New York City area, slowing the evening commute to a crawl and contributing to at least seven traffic deaths, according to AccuWeather.
“It is one of the earliest big November storms ever. The last time there was this much snow in New York City before the end of November was in 1938,” said AccuWeather Chief Meteorologist Elliot Abrams.
By Friday morning, Central Park was said to have 6.4 inches of snow by the National Weather Service. Meanwhile, the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) logged that Ulster County got between seven to thirteen inches of snow.
Despite the eight-hour long trip, Tedeschi and Leonard were fortunate to get out of New York City when they did. Specifically, out of the Port Authority.
According to the Associated Press (AP), the bus terminal had become an immovable block of wall-to-wall commuters by 5:30 that evening. More than 1,100 scheduled buses were canceled, The New York Times disclosed. Thousands of commuters were stranded outside the Port Authority, resulting in a line of disgruntled, shivering people to stretch a full city block.
The havoc Thursday’s snow storm had on the New York City region seemed to shine light on the fragility of the region’s transportation system, stressing how unreliable its aging infrastructure has become. Virtually every mode of transportation—whether the subway, the buses, the trains—is at full capacity and dependent on infrastructure that was built more than a century ago.
“The system doesn’t have any slack in a crisis,” said Mitchell L. Moss, the director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University. “We’re not really equipped to handle a breakdown in one part when it has to be absorbed by other parts of the transportation system.”
In response to these criticisms, Mayor Bill de Blasio pointed his finger at the meteorologists.
“If the city had known how bad the storm would be, officials could have encouraged people to stay home,” Mr. de Blasio said.
New Jersey Governor Philip D. Murphy also joined the weather team blaming bandwagon when confronted with criticisms of the response and handling of the storm.
“Yesterday gave forecasting a bad name,” Mr. Murphy said, calling the predictions of the storm’s intensity “lousy.”
In a sense, this is true—
Just two days before the storm, AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Dave Dombeck told the people of New York City that they can expect less than an inch of a slushy coating “at best,” and the Catskill region was forecasted for only three to six inches of snow.
Meteorologists expected to see rain and sleet hold down the snowfall amounts.
But the meteorologists’ misstep isn’t the full story. Meteorologists defended themselves by explaining that forecasting early storms can be tricky.
Small changes in air temperature can make a big difference, and Thursday’s temperature, it turns out, ended up being just a couple of degrees colder than predicted.
“Initially, we thought we’d be getting snow at 33 or 34 degrees, which would mean accumulation would be limited to non-paved surfaces,” said Meteorologist Jeff Smith. “But when that temperature ended up being closer to 31 or 32, disaster ensued!”
An unexpected 2-degree drop in temperature allowed the snow to last a few hours longer before changing to rain.
“If it was expected to snow at a rate of 2 inches per hour for one hour, but then say it lasted three more hours (rather than changing over), then that’s a difference of a half foot of snow,” Abrams said.