Ida brought the scariest NJ commute I ever had
UPDATE TO THIS RIDICULOUS SAGA FOUND AT BOTTOM IN ITALICS
My story is only one of thousands I’m sure. As I write this I’m stranded in a parking lot in Ringoes.
The remnants of Hurricane Ida that tore through New Orleans days ago finally reached New Jersey Wednesday evening.
My commute takes me on 31 North through Mercer County on up into Hunterdon County where I live in Raritan Township/Flemington.
Turns out Chief Meteorologist Dan Zarrow says this was just about the hardest hit part of the state with an astonishing possible 10 inches of rain in some spots over only 4 or 5 hours. This was in the area of Mercer County and Southern Hunterdon County.
At first it was just a typical heavy rain. By the time 31 crossed paths with 95 it got real bad real fast. Sheets of torrential rain were practically blinding, and soon huge ponding on the road was turning to outright deep water. Moments after I made it above the Pennington Circle that piercing blast came from my phone indicating an emergency alert.
I had never seen one of these messages.
It was not a tornado warning. It was above that. It was listed as a “tornado emergency.” Like I said, I never heard of such an alert. Time will tell if this was a false alarm but the “tornado emergency” message said a tornado was on the ground in my immediate area and to seek shelter immediately.
Of course being the genius I am (and also nothing being obviously close to me on that stretch of roadway) I chose to keep pressing on.
Now my arms were already tense from driving through longer stretches and deeper stretches of water across the highway but my eyes were also not only straining to see through the windshield but also desperately scanning the tree line to watch for a funnel cloud. At one point I could swear I heard a locomotive sound and thought well, this is it, but it lasted only three seconds so it had to be something else.
The sky was eerily black in one spot. The visibility among the worst I had ever experienced. And the stretches of deep water on the highway were increasing exponentially. Unfortunately ,they coincided with the sparsest populated section of road. There wasn’t much to stop at. It seemed best to keep pushing forward but frankly there were many points where I thought the car would stall, the waters would quickly rise and I’d be swept away. It truly felt at times a very real possibility.
With each mile you put behind you in a situation like this though, the more you feel like you can make it.
I almost did.
After an extremely harrowing 2 miles that started just past the QuickChek in Ringoes I was nearing the on-ramp to 202. That was perhaps the worst two-mile stretch except for one spot a mile or two south of there when the water was so deep I though I may float off and there was, I kid you not, a tree limb floating in the flood water that almost collided with my car.
I made it, barely, through those 2 miles with water almost to my headlights at spots only to find a line of cars stopped dead clogging the on-ramp.
I sat in it for awhile finally realizing it wasn’t going to move. Clearly something down 202 must have also been flooded and impassable. I tried going straight instead only to find a bridge looking like it would be washed away soon with water so deep and a current so strong it would have been suicide to enter it. The several cars before me were already turning around.
Next I tried the only other side road not even knowing where it might lead but that, too, was flooded. I started to head back south on 31 and quickly saw the last flooded section there I had driven north through minutes earlier was already dangerously deeper.
I had no choice left but to turn around and get back in line at the on-ramp to 202 which continued to be a standstill.
There I sat for the longest time. I had the thought of ‘just how bad could this get?‘ Could the flood waters behind us actually come up this far? Could we all end up having to abandon our vehicles and scramble up a muddy wet hillside? It honestly seemed that anything at this point was on the table. We were all literally trapped on all sides between rising floodwaters with nowhere left to go.
I must have sat for a good hour and mercifully the rain became less intense. After a long time I noticed some taillights behind me heading south and I waited to see if it looked like they found the flood and k-turned back. They never did. So did the water there actually recede?
I thought it was worth a shot. If I could get back down south maybe I could work my way around to an alternate route. Sure enough the spot that previously had been deep no longer was. I thought what a break I had found.
I headed south but very soon realized my luck wasn’t there. Other than that one section, the other flooded portions were still underwater and I soon found myself up to headlights in muddy water for what felt like a quarter mile. Then another. And another. Two or so miles below 202 I came back upon the Ringoes QuickChek and decided enough was enough. God only knows how bad the road ahead might be and the rain had picked up again into torrents.
I called it.
I pulled into the parking lot of the QuickChek and here I sit, even now, writing this from my car. It’s well after 10 p.m., more than three hours since this 35 minute commute home began. The rain is pounding fiercely on my roof. Every spot in the lot is taken with stranded drivers facing the same dilemma. Emergency sirens are sounding everywhere.
As I write this I have no idea if I’ll be sleeping here in my car tonight. I’m keeping up to date with the 202 situation with our traffic reporter Tom Rivers. I’m sitting listening to Michele Pilenza and Eric Potts’ excellent coverage of the events unfolding in real time. (Steve Trevelise picked a smart night to be off.)
So that’s my story. We seem to be on high ground here so it should be fine. And there will be a more peaceful, anticlimactic update to this story tomorrow when this commute will, hopefully, have finally ended.
Here’s your update. My ridiculous night got even more so. By half past midnight give or take the rain eased up somewhat. I decided to venture north on 31 again and was surprised to see those huge stretches of tire deep water were gone.
This gave me hope perhaps the jam at the 202 on-ramp had cleared.
Not a chance.
Now it was over half a mile long and still a parking lot. I turned back south figuring maybe more of 31 floodwaters had receded. They had. Several miles south I found a road around Ringoes I’d never been on but gps told me it could be a by-pass route home. It was an extremely narrow, extremely rural, dark, gravel type road. Lined with high grass on either side you felt like you were in a haunted corn maze waiting to see water pour out of the fields any moment.
No flooding, but wouldn’t you know it a mile and a half in the road was shut down, completely blocked by two disabled trucks. I got out to talk to some nice folks who didn’t speak a word of English. I could quickly assess though there was no getting through here.
Once again I turned back to 31 and dropped farther south. The good news, all of 31 was no longer flooded. The bad news, every time I tried to find an alternate path off it to turn back north roads were out.
I finally decided to get all the way over to 206 around Ewing (yes, this is basically where my night started at 7:00 and it was now well after 1:00 in the morning) thinking perhaps I could go north on 206 up through Hillsborough and cut back over to enter Raritan Township/Flemington from the other side.
Didn’t work. More road closures.
Pretty much giving up on getting home I turned back to follow 31 north again. I thought I would probably end up sleeping in my car back at the QuickChek parking lot. When I got that far after 2 in the morning I thought I might as well go the extra couple miles to just confirm the parking lot the 202 on-ramp had turned into was still there. Then I would give up.
Lo and behold by now there were no cars except for a truck and a minivan that were parked at the entrance to the ramp kind of haphazardly. I stopped between them and asked.
Minivan guy said a friend of his had passed five minutes earlier and called to report the flood had receded but 202 was extremely dangerous, strewn with many abandoned and wrecked vehicles you would have to zig zag in between.
If the friend made it I knew I would. So onto 202 I went.
It looked like a war zone.
Abandoned cars like a messy kids Hot Wheels collection littering a playroom floor. Cars left in travel lanes with hazards left on. Cars left sideways across traffic lanes probably moved by previous water. Cars that had crashed, front ends demolished, back ends straddling the concrete median wall. You had to navigate this carnage carefully. At one point, somehow, resting across the median wall and extending out into the left lane about to smash into my windshield, was a huge tree. At least I think it was a tree. Possibly a phone pole? So dark you couldn’t see it until the last second.
I drove through all this wreckage glad to not be part of it. I was finally home at 2:35 in the morning. 7 and a half hours after leaving work. I’ve had 4 and a half hours sleep and assume we will be sharing similar stories all afternoon from listeners.
This experience reminds me of the old adage: What doesn’t kill you makes you wet, exhausted, and hanging out in convenience store parking lots.
Something close to that.
The post above reflects the thoughts and observations of New Jersey 101.5 talk show host Jeff Deminski. Any opinions expressed are Jeff Deminski's own.