A collision that essentially crippled much of the South Fork for six hours on July 24 has local officials asking what can be done to ensure that one accident won’t halt an entire emergency evacuation.
All four lanes of County Road 39 were shut down following the , which spilled 20 gallons of oil and other fluid onto the roadway, requiring a cleanup effort following investigators' re-creation of the accident, according to authorities.
“It affected access both into and out of town,” Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst said Friday during a Town Board discussion with town Police Chief William Wilson and town Director of Transportation and Traffic Safety Tom Neely. “How does this happen and how is it that we don’t have the ability to clear the roads and get traffic flowing again?”
Traffic was diverted around the scene, but congestion was made worse by construction on Montauk Highway, Southampton’s secondary east-west corridor.
Wilson called it a “perfect storm of events,” because of where it happened, the fact that it was during a time of year when traffic volume is high, and while Montauk Highway traffic was already delayed.
The accident occurred around 2 p.m. where eastbound Sunrise Highway becomes County Road 39 and the speed limit falls to 35 miles per hour. Wilson said one person was critically injured. “It looked very possible it could have become a fatal accident,” he said. One driver had a revoked license and criminal charges could have been lodged, he added. “That fact exacerbated what was already a bad situation.”
Public safety and convenience must be balanced with the accident re-creation process, Wilson said. “If public safety had been jeopardized outside of inconvenience, I would have taken immediate steps”
In addition to police and traffic control officers, a Suffolk County accident re-creation crew, county Department of Public Works workers and volunteers were also involved at the scene, he said. “We weren’t the only ones determining how long the roadway stayed shut down; however, I am supporting the decisions.”
In retrospect, the chief said, he would have ordered the construction work on Montauk Highway stopped for public safety’s sake. “I would have moved the construction materials off of Montauk Highway and made it work."
Though the accident happened on a county road in the Southampton Town Police Department's jurisdiction, officials reported that village offices were inundated with calls and complaints regarding how the situation was handled.
At Thursday evening's Village Board meeting, trustees and the mayor called for action to be taken so this doesn't happen again during a time it will not only pose an inconvenience, but also a danger.
“If we do in the future have some sort of major disaster, it would be nice to have a plan in effect to move people around … in a lot more organized manner than we’ve had in the past,” Southampton Village Board Trustee Michael Irving said during Thursday’s meeting.
Trustee Bill Hattrick also called for a plan, “so the whole East End doesn’t end up on Windmill Lane and Nugent Street,” arteries in the village.
“The repercussions of that were really just enormous,” Hattrick added.
Mayor Mark Epley shared their sentiments. “The thing that scares me more than anything is hurricanes,” he said. “We need to go back to each of our departments and make sure everything is prepared and ready.”
Epley said water temperatures are warm going into hurricane season. “It’s ripe for this.”
However, at Friday’s Town Board work session, Throne-Holst pointed out that in the event of a hurricane there is typically 24 to 48 hours notice for an evacuation.
When Hurricane Irene was barreling toward Long Island one year ago, the town and village issued evacuation orders for flood prone areas well before the storm hit, and shelters were opened in several spots on the South Fork.