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Mixed Messages: During Sandy, City Banned Road Travel Without Consulting Rutgers

City, State Police, and RU Clashed on Transporatation and Labor Issues During Storm
A tree blocks College Avenue in the aftermath of Sandy.
A tree blocks College Avenue in the aftermath of Sandy. Richard Rabinowitz

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—A report issued by Rutgers University late last year confirmed major mistakes and miscommunications between the school and its host city during the onslaught of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

"Prior to the storm, the City of New Brunswick declared a state of emergency and a travel ban within city limits," reads the report.  "The mixed message of road closures in New Brunswick combined with Rutgers’ expectation for staff to report to work further complicated the situation."

That ban initially included Route 18 until the New Jersey State Police argued that cities do not have the authority to close state highways.

Rutgers was not happy.

"These actions were taken by the City of New Brunswick without any consultation with Rutgers and created additional challenges for Rutgers personnel and emergency managers," reads the report.

New Brunswick's blockade had been enacted without telling Rutgers, leading to a headache for Rutgers emergency operators and crew.  Eventually, Rutgers struck a deal with the City of New Brunswick to allow employees with Rutgers ID to move around the city.

Bus service was also adversely affected by Mayor James Cahill's order to keep the streets free and clear of non-emergency vehicles.

According to the report, "the travel ban greatly hindered bus operations across the campus as they sought alternate routes to reach their destinations."

Cahill's spokesman Russell Marchetta defended the city's decision: "We had a state of emergency in the city.  That means nobody comes in."

Marchetta is a member of the city's 15-member Emergency Management Council, which does not include a representative for Rutgers University.

"A state of emergency is a state of emergency," Marchetta said.  "We put in a state of emergency.  State of emergency takes precedence over everything."

Nonetheless, Rutgers tried to cover all bases by canceling classes on October 29 and October 30. But confusion ensued when the university issued a "Weather Alert Status," tellling "essential staff" to report to work on October 29, as the storm slammed the New Brunswick campus.

The problem was that the term "essential" was defined on the spur of the moment. The university argued that it needed to be, as bosses at the scene have to make emergency decisions without much input. Because of this arbitrariness, employees that needed to report to work often felt that they were unfairly treated.

Plenty of employees wanted this policy amended to state that employees should not put themselves in danger when trying to get to work, and the report concurred that more clarity was needed in determining which employees needed to report to work in an emergency. 

As the report put it, "The historical practice of the automatic mobilization of every person who at any time was deemed to have been 'essential' to report to every closure of the university is unnecessary, a bad business practice and cost prohibitive."

"Unit managers need to decide which employees are required to work," the report concluded.

"Many individuals at the supervisory level did not understand the meaning of 'Weather Alert Status'," read the report.  "Those in staff positions perceived the announcement that offices would be open on Monday morning as a lack of institutional concern for their well-being and safety."

"State of emergency" was another term that furrowed eyebrows in confusion.  Employees often thought that the declaration of a "state of emergency" at the state level meant that travel was banned, while it actually meant that the state was preparing to help with the relief of disaster victims.

New Brunswick's ban on travel may have contributed to this confusion.  Either way, the result was that people who were told to report to work during a "state of emergency" didn't know what to do.

Rutgers has a policy, "Attendance during Adverse Weather Events", which requires emergency and security employees to report to work during a "weather emergency," but does not quite specify such a requirement for "weather alerts" or "inclement weather", two other possible weather statuses.

Those are statuses declared by Rutgers University, not the government in Trenton.

But, the good news is that Rutgers may have learned their lesson from the debacle.  One of the university's most aggressive unions, the Union of Rutgers Administrators (URA) praised the school's handling of a dangerous storm on January 3.

"When Rutgers management declared an Emergency Closing on January 3, URA members were pleasantly surprised. 'OMG' and 'finally' echoed across our social media networks," read a recent post on the union's website.

"Essential personnel who were called in to work got their emergency compensation and the rest of our workforce got a day to shovel our own sidewalks."

The URA and the American Federation of Teachers played a critical role in pressuring the school to release the secret report to the public, along with New Brunswick Today and other media outlets.