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Transportation, Climate Change & Extreme Weather Vulnerability Assessment Webinar Series - June 20, 2013

Session 4: "Hurricane Sandy - Lessons Learned"

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The presenters included: Tina Hodges of the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA's) Sustainable Transportation and Climate Change Team, Richard M. Shaw of the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT), and Antonio Cabrera of New York City Transit Authority of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA-NYCT).

Session Overview:

Session 4 of the webinar series expands upon the discussion of vulnerability assessments from Sessions 1 through 3 by offering a window into the real-life impacts of the extreme weather events that are expected to become more common and more severe as the climate changes. The session featured presentations from the NJDOT and MTA-NYCT, two agencies that had both worked on vulnerability assessments prior to being struck by Hurricane Sandy. The presenters elaborated on their emergency response efforts, extreme weather preparation projects, and long-term adaptation strategies. Both agencies are currently using Hurricane Sandy as an opportunity to assess the vulnerability of their local transportation networks and integrate vulnerability into decisionmaking.

Our Bout with Superstorm Sandy, Richard M. Shaw, Assistant Commissioner for Operations, NJDOT

Hurricane Sandy was the largest hurricane in diameter ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean. The storm resulted in over 100 fatalities and estimated damage of $71 billion. In some areas of Northern New Jersey, the devastation from the storm was complete. In responding to the storm and preparing for similar events in the future, NJDOT developed a list of lessons learned.

The first and most important lesson that NJDOT learned through this process is that prior planning prevents poor performance. As a result of its preparedness, for example, NJDOT was able to get contractors and State forces to begin responding to damage from the storm within five hours of wind subsidence. A second lesson from the storm was that preparation begins at home. Individuals and families need to be prepared to respond to an emergency in their immediate area. The third lesson that NJDOT shared during this session was that preparation is a year-round process, meaning that transportation agencies must be constantly prepared for disaster relief. During the response to Hurricane Sandy, for example, NJDOT benefited from its well-practiced staff and existing debris removal contracts.

An overarching lesson from NJDOT's response to Hurricane Sandy is the value of a well-organized approach to emergency relief and importance of effective mechanisms for communication and delegation. NJDOT unified its response efforts through a central incident command center that established geographic sectors, assigned areas of work by geographic area, coordinated with law enforcement agencies, utility companies, and Federal agencies; set up daily reporting requirements, and documented all the response activities were taking place. NJDOT's communication strategies included daily meetings with field staff to communicate assignments, and a statewide information clearinghouse at the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management

As a result of NJDOT's coordinated efforts, reconstruction of Route 35 was completed and the roadway was fully open by December 21, just 53 days after the storm. NJDOT is currently preparing for other catastrophic events in the future though initiatives such as installing power stations at traffic signals to provide power to emergency responders, establishing contracts with multiple fuel vendors from multiple refinery sites, and changing the Department's cost accounting system to separate FHWA Emergency Relief eligible work from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) eligible work.

Storm Surge Flooding in New York City Transit, Antonio Cabrera, Track Engineering Officer, MTA-NYCT

Antonio Cabrera's presentation offered an engineering perspective on NYCT's preparation for Hurricane Sandy, its response to the storm, and its plans to protect against comparable storm surges in the future.

The agency's preparation efforts drew upon New York City's historic experience with storms, such as the nor'easter of December 1992, as well as the 1995 Metro New York Hurricane Transportation Study that the storm prompted. Previous storms, though catastrophic, were useful in terms of informing the predictive impacts of hurricanes.

In 2010 MTA used the Sea, Lake, and Overland Surge from Hurricanes (SLOSH) model to develop a series of flood maps that overlaid predicted levels of inundation on top of its rapid transit stations and tracks. Using these maps, MTA staff were able to predict which facilities and points of entry would be inundated under each category of hurricane. MTA staff further surveyed each facility within a flood zone to compare the actual elevation of openings to storm surge models. Finally, MTA used to the flood maps to determine which facilities and station entrances would need protection in the event of a major storm. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, MTA compared the SLOSH predictions it used to develop the critical facilities list with the actual high water marks from the storm and found that the model's predictions were highly accurate.

With its critical facilities identified, MTA staff moved quickly to protect its facilities from the coming storm surge by boarding up vents and constructing flood walls out of sand bags and wood. Because Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Cuomo decided to evacuate the subway system just 8 hours in advance of the storm, MTA staff had limited time to prepare for the storm. Despite the time crunch, many of these precautions functioned well during the storm. A makeshift flood wall across the tracks of the148th Street Portal, for example, withstood the flooding and prevented water from continuing down the track.

Despite the MTA's efforts, however, the damage from Hurricane Sandy was severe. Flooding occurred in eight different areas of under-river tubing; saltwater corroded rails and fasteners on tracks throughout the system; and the Rockaway Flats rail line was completely destroyed. Flooding at the New South Ferry Terminal destroyed all the station's communications systems, pump controls, signals, and escalators.

In the future, MTA predicts that Category 2 and even Category 1 hurricanes will result in the flooding of subway tunnels and cause hundreds of millions of dollars in damage and severe service disruptions. In future storms, the time required to restore functionality of the system could be measured in years rather than weeks or months. To prepare for these impacts, MTA will need to determine the best ways to protect its transit system against storm surges in excess of 11 feet. It is currently investigating examples of flood protection from around the world, including flood walls, flood gates, and automatic ventilation shutters in place in the Tokyo and Hong Kong metros, to determine what is appropriate for the NYCT system. MTA is also considering the merits of unconventional methods of flood control, such as flip-up barriers, inflatable barriers, and tunnel plugs. Other mitigation options being considered by MTA include upgrading pumps, revising design guidelines, adding more pump trains, and building perimeter flood walls.

Updated: 10/20/2015
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