Gridlock: Nobody Could Get Into or Out of the Hamptons for Six Hours

About 15 years ago, somebody in government with a pile of money to spend and nothing immediately apparent to spend it on got the super idea to put signs on the Montauk Highway that read EVACUATION ROUTE. If an emergency occurred, and you were now so upset you were unable to recall the road on which you came into the Hamptons—there is only one—these signs were a godsend. Oh, so THIS is the evacuation route!

From Montauk to Westhampton there were maybe 200 of them. Litter is what some people called them. And they were.

A few years ago, most of the signs disappeared from the scene. Many thought they were taken away by a remorseful county, wiped clean and repainted to be used for other more proper purposes.  But a call to the County says they never ordered them taken away.  They’ve just gone missing from accidents, snowplows and, perhaps, highway beautifying vandals.

And then came last Tuesday, on which day nobody could get into or out of the Hamptons on the evacuation route highway for six hours. This was the largest Guinness Book of World’s Records traffic jam in the history of the modern world since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution—right here in the Hamptons. It stretched for, for oh my God, EVER. All the way to East Hampton 19 miles away, at least.

It was not that a terrorist bomb had gone off somewhere and everyone drove to the evacuation route at the same time and so jammed it up you couldn’t use it.

It was not that something was on fire, or radiation from Millstone had swept over the Hamptons and we had driven to the evacuation route and it was so jammed you couldn’t use it. It wasn’t even that a Force 6 hurricane was barreling up the coast.

No. The authorities had shut down the evacuation route because of an accident. A car and a truck had collided, right at the narrow choke point at the Lobster Inn where County Road 39 meets up with the Sunrise Highway. A choke point is where there are no shoulders of the road to get on to get around it. This was that point.

The motor vehicle accident had occurred, and it had caused diesel fuel to spill out of a gas tank and over both the eastbound and westbound lanes of the evacuation route. Okay there was no EVACUATION ROUTE sign there. What good would it have done? The disaster WAS the evacuation route.

This crash and fuel spill, followed by the arrival of a helicopter ambulance to a spot on the highway to evacuate an injured person happened at a little before two in the afternoon.

Of course, even though this was a choke point, it would have been possible to get around it, if the authorities had allowed the cars to jump the curb and go across the front lawns of homes and the parking lots of businesses. But no. it was shut down and it was going to stay shut until somebody arrived with the kitty litter or whatever else the stuff was you sprinkled down to blot up the diesel fuel. Ho hum.

Here at Dan’s Papers, which is on the south side of County Road 39 next to the Southampton Full Gospel Church, people looked out the window at 2 p.m. to see all traffic going westbound toward the city at a standstill. There was no traffic at all going eastbound.

Okay, we all thought, there must have been an accident. They will clear it up soon. But an hour later, the traffic was still stopped, and now it was clear we were witnessing a major breaking story—the shutting down of the evacuation route right out our windows. A lead story for the next issue of Dan’s Papers! Brought right to us on a silver platter.

We continued working. It was, gulp, still there at 4 and at 5 and at 6 when we ordered some food delivered to the production staff getting out the paper from a restaurant a half mile away, and nothing arrived until 7:30 p.m., when, unbelievably, the Evacuation Route was still shut.

Uh oh.

But oh yes, there are alternate evacuation routes, real ones, to get around that choke point. They are little tiny narrow back roads—you have to know about them—and they lead after many twists and turns to the narrow bridge at Montauk Highway by way of Hill Street you can use to cross the Shinnecock Canal.

But now, the afternoon commute was beginning. As you know, real estate prices are so high in the Hamptons that workers here can’t afford to live here anymore. They live west of here. But they are not dumb. Word of mouth traveled fast. They headed for the alternate evacuation routes.

And where were those signs? Where were the ALTERNATE EVACUATION ROUTE signs when you needed them?

Here’s the testimony of Rich Scalera, a salesman at Dan’s Papers about what happened when the end of the business day at 5 p.m. arrived. He and two other employees, in a caravan of three cars, headed out.

With the traffic on County Rd 39 at a crawl Lisa Carter, Kathy Camarata and myself tried the back roads to reach Hill Street to head home. We found every street heading to Hill Street filled with cars just inching along. After an hour of waiting I decided to head back toward North Sea Road and reach the ferry in Sag Harbor.

As I passed the traffic heading east I came to a corner at Halsey Street where everything was coming unraveled. Cars were all jammed into the same intersection. Four cars decided to head into the eastbound lane to make a left which blocked anyone heading that way. Suddenly a truck jumped over the lawn on the corner to head east and more trucks and SUV’s followed. People who seemed used to Manhattan rush hour traffic were not afraid to create new routes. The general rule of thumb was to scold someone for pulling a stunt, then 15 minutes later try the same move out of desperation.
I headed back to Windmill Lane and again spent 30 minutes trying to make a left through bumper-to-bumper traffic. The one thing that stood out was that there were no police anywhere to even try to direct traffic! I eventually found myself heading east on Scuttle Hole Road and as I was needing gas, passed our old office which now looked lonely and unattended while going through renovations. After $24 worth of ferry rides I arrived in Greenport to head west to Aquebogue. My trip home took four hours. If this is what happens with people heading home, what will happen when we all need to evacuate.

Of course, we called the Southampton Police Department to find out why the evacuation route was still shut. We’d heard through the grapevine, the radio, 27east and Patch about the fuel spill and the helicopter. Where was the truck with the kitty litter? Why wasn’t there a pail of the stuff in a metal bucket hanging from a nail driven into a telephone pole right there? How dangerous was it for the helicopter to land on a diesel fuel spill? Had it been alongside the fuel spill? On a front lawn? What happened to the man who was being choppered out to
Stony Brook Hospital?

No answers came from the Southampton Police Department. Nor did any come in subsequent days.

Here’s the report my son David posted on his DAN’S DAILY blog on our website danshamptons.com the following day.

When I saw the traffic in Southampton yesterday after the car accident on County Road 39, I had absolutely no idea what had happened. Traffic was at a complete standstill on nearly ever road in the Hamptons. I’ve never seen anything like it since 9/11 and the first thing I thought when I saw the jam was that something really, really, really bad was going down.

I heard a story about a family who waited for five hours in traffic and then decided to turn back around and sleep in East Hampton. People sat in their cars, looking around, wondering what was going on… 

The traffic jam was unbelievable. I was able to take a few back routes to get to my condo (in downtown Southampton,) and then got out and walked into the street to talk to people if they knew what was going on. One guy in his car with two kids in the back seat said, “I haven’t seen a single cop anywhere or anything, nobody knows what’s happening, I hope everything is okay.”

I got thinking about this traffic and realized that if you don’t have a boat, you are trapped on Long Island if a highway gets shut down. If something happens and you need to get off the island for whatever reason by car and just a few key roads are closed, it stops EVERYTHING. Have we thought about this? Is there a plan? Maybe there should be. But other than having several giant emergency car ferries at the ready, I really can’t think of anything that can be done other than, well, just wait. I saw people in their cars losing their minds. There were people yelling at each other, people were getting out of their cars, there was little information being released about what was going on.

 

Come to think of it, I DO know people who might have benefitted from all those EVACUATION ROUTE signs we used to have. When I first got here and moved up into Springs where many locals live, I discovered that many of my neighbors who had lived here their whole lives had never been to New York City. They just had never felt the need to go.

I know this sounds incredible. But it’s true. And since then I have encountered others who have never been out of the Hamptons.

Indeed, for them such signs might have been truly informative during those 15 or so years the authorities had thought to post them.

So maybe I’m wrong.

Here’s another post from David on the blog.

According to the Southampton Police Department, At 7 p.m. (on that Tuesday), near the corner of Ox Pasture Road and Lee Avenue, three women who were driving in a blue Nissan Maxima and were all dressed in bathing suits, attempted to pass around a 63-year-old man in a car in the middle of the dead stop traffic. The man told the women not to pass him and an argument broke out. The women then exited their vehicle in the middle of the road as did the 63-year-old man, and the women began to physically attack him by surrounding him and kicking and punching him. (He fell to the ground.)

When I first heard about this, if I’m honest with you, I actually laughed about it because it just seemed so absurd to me, but these three women beat this poor man, who has asked not to be identified, so severely that he needed to be driven to the hospital when police arrived and needed to be woken up after receiving so many blows to his head. The man admitted that he began the argument by not allowing them to pass. (He also said his big mistake was in getting out of his car.) The women got away and no license plate number was obtained.

I don’t even know what to say.

 

But bloggers knew what to say. Here’s some commentary from 27east, twitter, danshamptons, patch, CBS and others.

“Was stuck in traffic so long we got out, had a picnic, some drinks and even did a blood transfusion before our car moved. Seriously four hours just to get out of Southampton. I feel bad for the accident victim.” (Andrew Sadler off of twitter.com)

“I think someone needs to make a plan so we can get out. I feel trapped.” (CBS Local)

“I think we shouldn’t allow any more cars with New Jersey plates to come out here. Don’t they have beaches in New Jersey?” (jim 27east.com)

“Sorry, I’m not buying that 6.5 hours were needed to evacuate a driver and do a cleanup. And why do I keep reading that this was a crime scene?” (btdt 27east.com)

“Children that are hungry, thirsty; 95 degrees in the car, and we have no gas and nowhere to go.” (motorist Ana Amato according to CBS New York)

 

Here’s the commentary from Dan’s Papers salesperson Lisa Carter.

Even three deer I came across while I waited over an hour on Moss Lane to get onto Hill Street gazed in confusion at the mass of cars. I could read their minds as they looked up and down the street wondering where all these cars came from.

What boggles my mind the most is where all our local police officers were to direct traffic. I commute from Nassau to the Dan’s Papers office in Southampton and encounter at least 12–15 officers daily, sitting, waiting and watching, ready to hand out tickets. But in the three hours I sat trying desperately to get out of town, I did not see one. Not a Town, or Village officer, nor a trooper, Deputy Sherriff or Suffolk County cop. No information was readily available, not one official to direct the hordes of traffic I encountered. Where were they all? I called the Town Supervisor’s office and was told they were all at the accident scene taking care of spilt diesel. Really…all of them? Were they all lying down end-to-end covering the diesel with their bodies?

It was a really tough situation. On Thursday, at a Southampton Town Hurricane Preparedness Meeting, Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne Holst, prodded by reporters, made these comments about this disaster. Our reporter Alexandra Andreassen was on the scene and transcribed them.

“That was probably one of the biggest eye-openers for us…We are a bottleneck out here…In the event of an emergency, how do we get out? This wasn’t a storm or an emergency, just a terrible accident. Traffic came to a standstill for about six hours.

“What we decided to do yesterday is we are going to start a code red alert system, where you can go on our website and you can register your phone number, we suggest you use your cell phone number and email address, and you can get notifications from the town.

“And we are looking for an emergency services coordinator because the other one retired.

“Bulletins through the website, (we) will run PSAs on Channel 22…You can always call us.”

But will the Town put back up the  EVACUATION ROUTE signs?

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