When I started working as the local editor of Millburn-Short Hills Patch nine months ago, I figured my days of covering disasters were over, or at least would be few and far between.
After 25 years in the news business and a lot of disaster coverage, I was fine with that. And I had always dreamed of someday running a small town newspaper, keeping folks up-to-date on news that hits home. Patch seemed like the 21st Century version of that dream.
So much for the quiet life of a small-town news editor.
2011 was a big year for news in Millburn-Short Hills, with two natural disasters in two months (three if you count the earthquake, but I don't really) from flooding during Hurricane-turned-Tropical Storm Irene to a freak October snowstorm.
And disasters weren’t the only stories that kept reporters and editors in Millburn and Short Hills busy this year.
Breaking news and crime
Sadly, there were two deaths on the train tracks, when a Short Hills woman stood on the tracks in front of an express train in June and a man, who witnesses say jumped in front of an express train in November, leaving no form of identification and causing an investigation that took a month to learn he was from Jersey City.
Just last week, a Short Hills woman was struck and killed while she was crossing the street after work in Summit.
Crime topped the news this year with a carjacking and an attempted carjacking – both in Short Hills, one at the train station and one at The Mall at Short Hills. At the station, two men held guns to the victim's head and took his Mercedes Benz. At the mall, the victim was violently pistol whipped in the head before the perpetrators fled.
Like other small towns and suburbs in the area, there has also been a rash of auto thefts and burglaries. The township has responded by beefing up patrols and looking into purchasing surveillance cameras for the stations and around downtown in strategic locations.
The day after the carjacking, some suspected shoplifters drove the wrong direction down Millburn Avenue, causing a police officer to draw his gun as they headed in his direction before swerving and missing him.
There were also stories that made big news that were more along the lines of what you might expect in a small town – a bear in the backyards of Short Hills, a juvenile caught doing driving donuts on the Glenwood playground.
Among the joys and accomplishments at the high school in 2011, there was also sadness when beloved teacher Fritz Jonach died of a heart attack in May and when the daughter of a teacher was struck and killed by a car in November.
Elsewhere in the district, Millburn leaders and parents worked together to keep charter schools from getting approved by the state and pulling students from the Millburn and Short Hills. One of the proposed schools, Hanyu, dropped its bid after being turned down by the state Department of Education. Hua Mei reapplied and is still in the running, but removed Millburn from the districts it will serve. However, if approved, it could still pull from Millburn if it doesn’t reach its quota of students.
Other school news included a protracted fight with the teachers and administration unions over a contract and health benefits. The state also required the passing of stricter Harrassment, Intimidation and Bullying laws this year, requiring training and programs for students, faculty and parents.
Natural Disasters and other Weather Stories
The biggest news this year was the destruction caused by both the flooding of Tropical Storm Irene and the October snowstorm.
On Aug. 28, Irene barreled her way through Millburn, and the banks of the Rahway overflowed and destroyed basements and ground floors of businesses downtown and homes in the nearby Washington area, as well as St. Stephen’s Church. The banks of east branch overflowed as well, adding water to an already flooded area of South Mountain, where residents first experienced flooding from the sewer system as their toilets and sinks overflowed before the river ever breached the retaining wall.
Manhole covers popped up and when the water receded, human waste and waste products were left on lawns and in the streets.
The township was without water for nearly a week and without electricity up to nine days.
Businesses have returned at different rates with Basilico re-opening three weeks after the storm, Curate reopening a month afterward and Tinga still working to re-open, with obvious work being done and a sign in the window saying they will be back.
The freak October snowstorm while tree branches were still heavy with leaves was more destructive than the hurricane in some ways. Neighborhoods looked like war zones with debris everywhere. Live power lines kept people trapped in their houses as they popped and sparked outside. Much of Short Hills was left without power for nine days and the downed wires and power outages kept students at Glenwood and Hartshorn out of school for five days and used up all of the district’s “snow days” this year.
Students in those schools will have to go to school on Jan. 2 and on Martin Luther King Day, to make up for the additional days lost.
A favorite event, the Millburn Halloween Parade put on by the Fire Department, was canceled, but unlike some communities, trick-or-treating went on with residents of neighborhoods too treacherous visiting safer neighborhoods in their costumes.
The disasters also became a political issue because some residents believed the township had not responded well enough. But in a close race incumbent Robert Tillotson and Shari Greenberg took the open seats on the Township Committee over challengers Seth Levine and Stephen Thomas.
Those storms were not the only weather Millburn and the rest of New Jersey saw this year. Remember January? With 30 inches of snow, it broke the record with the most snow in 160 years. And combined with the blizzard of December of 2010, early this year, we had already been socked with 50.4 inches of snow!
Besides dealing with weather and natural disasters, the township has had other issues – deciding to build a $8 million downtown parking garage and a $1.7 million project to demolish and replace the Millburn Avenue Bridge downtown. The township’s zoning board is still hearing testimony on the proposed Chai center that is controversial in a Short Hills residential neighborhood and Stop & Shop, which is in Springfield but has a 20-foot strip of right-of-way in Millburn, which is a source of contention with residents not wanting the increased traffic it will add. Tune in for more on those in January, when their hearings resume.
But it hasn't all been bad news in town, NJ Transit crew rescued Coco, a dog who belonged to a Short Hills family, from the tracks, brought her on board and eventually returned her to frantic family, after she road to Penn Station and back.
And as always, Millburn schools offered a bright spot with lots of awards and students excelling and doing amazing things, such as Alison Bick, who traveled to Sweden to win the 2011 Stockholm Junior Water Prize and Blake Udland who won the 2011 Group III Individual Cross Country State Championship.
Here's hoping the 2012 brings more good news and less weird and destructive weather.