Superstorm Sandy has been the media star of the past month. But the documentary mission of New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority videographer J.P. Chan is to highlight Sandy's responders at the agency—those crews pumping out water, checking signal systems and bringing transit back to a dependent city as quickly as possible.
"We've been working nonstop since before the storm hit," Chan says, speaking of all MTA workers. "My job is to get information out to the public and be as transparent as possible about what we're doing to restore service."
Nine days after Sandy, Chan, who already had uploaded several raw clips of footage to YouTube of pumping operations and rail repair, headed to Brooklyn, shadowed by ENR. The L train tunnel, a vital link to Manhattan, had just been unwatered. Crews would then check signal systems for damage and haul out equipment from the site.
"You'll see how hard they're working," says Chan. "Double, triple shifts and no days off."
Transit services are far from 100% restored, but experts say it could have been much worse. "It was unprecedented for MTA to shut down the system for Hurricane Irene. Doing it again for Sandy limited damage and kept people from being stranded," says Cosema Crawford, senior vice president with Louis Berger Group and former chief transit engineer for the MTA. "Measures such as covering vent grates and blocking station entrances have greatly reduced the intrusion of water, thus speeding the recovery effort."
One of Chan's first assignments was to record the unwatering of the recently upgraded South Ferry Station. "When designing for that station, we considered some kind of dam around it," says Mysore Nagaraja, former MTA Capital Construction Co. president. "But how high? Two feet? Three? Nobody could really predict. Even if we'd spent money to build a 3-foot wall, it would not have helped here."
In the Brooklyn station, crews piled equipment on a work train, preparing to head into the tube beneath the East River. "A lot of these guys lost a lot," says track worker Maurice Agard. "But they didn't leave. They kept working."
The L train line was the first in the system to receive communications-based train control (CBTC) equipment, which allows trains to be tracked more accurately—one of the MTA's many projects to upgrade a 100-plus-year-old system.
"It would be fair to say that, given current climate data, we might use slightly different design standards with new infrastructure," says George Pierson, chief executive officer with Parsons Brinckerhoff. "But I don't know that you can say because New York is old, that's why it was impacted the way it was. It is a purely intellectual debate."
In preparation for Sandy, crews had taken the CBTC equipment out of their cases. "We took it all out, now we put it back in," says Stu Hymowitz, superintendent for new technology signal systems.
The train, dubbed a "taxi," rumbled into the tunnel, dropping off crews with flashlights at various spots to check signal boxes, CBTC cases and pump rooms. The taxi train was a big help: In the past, crews had to walk in and out 2,000 ft, hauling heavy equipment, says Hymowitz.
The main challenge in restoring service was not the flooding but loss of electric power, crews say.
Michael McKelvy, a division president with CH2M Hill, suggests, "You could have drain pumping systems and emergency generators installed in tunnels. When rebuilding, putting things below ground would be something to look at." Ensuring that distribution poles are built to codes adopted by other storm-prone regions is another option, he adds.
Returning to the station, crews began hauling heavy equipment out to the street, destined for other sitework or to the shop.
Agard gestures at his colleagues, saying, "This has been hard, but it's New York. Everyone steps up and handles it."