Hurricane Sandy exceeded officials’ worst fears and dealt a knock-out punch to New York City’s century-old-plus-infrastructure, leaving an unprecedented 800,000 customers without power and millions more without public transportation for what could be weeks.
As of late Oct. 30, most of New York City was still crippled, with the eastern lower part of Manhattan flat-out paralyzed, while transportation and power agencies scrambled to begin damage assessments and repairs.
ConEdison, the city’s power provider, had to deal with an explosion Monday night at its Lower East Side substation that left thousands of residents and businesses in the dark, in addition to the 34,700 customers affected by planned outages and contributing to an approximately 800,000 total still without electricity as of Tuesday afternoon.
The outages were roughly split between the company's underground and overhead systems, according to ConEd’s site. It cited the many roads flooded or blocked by fallen trees, hampering recovery efforts. Last year, Hurricane Irene caused 203,000 customers to go dark.
ConEd officials hoped to restore underground infrastructure within four days, but warned that replacing overhead wires could take a week or more in the aftermath of “the most devastating storm in company history.”
That devastating storm also had a widespread impact on nuclear power plants on the East Coast. Three nuclear reactors were shut down during the storm, and another plant, Oyster Creek in N.J.’s Lacey township, remains under an “alert” due to high water levels in its water intake structure, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The three nuclear reactors that experienced “trips” or shutdowns, during the storm were Nine Mile Point 1 in Scriba, N.Y., Indian Point 3 in Buchanan, N.Y., and Salem Unit 1 in Hancocks Bridge, N.J.
The plants at Nine Mile Point and Indian Point automatically shut down due to electrical grid disturbances likely caused by the storm, the NRC says. PSEG manually shut down Salem Unit 1 at approximately 1:10 a.m. Tuesday morning, after four of the station’s six circulating water pumps were affected by the storm. The circulating water pumps use Delaware Bay/River water to condense steam on the non-nuclear side of the plant. SEG says that no issues were encountered during the Salem Unit 1 shutdown and the plant is currently stable.
At Oyster Creek, rising water levels due to a combination of a rising tide, high winds and a storm surge, triggered an “alert” at the station. Even though water levels has dropped, the Alert will remain in place until the level is below the specific criteria for the intake structure, which is where water from an intake canal is pumped into the plant for cooling purposes. Oyster Creek was shut down for a refueling and maintenance outage prior to the storm, and the reactor remains out of service.
The NRC says it will coordinate with other federal and state agencies prior to the restart of the affected plants.
ConEd’s reference to Sandy as the most devastating storm in its history was no different than that of the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Joe Llohta, who added in a statement that “Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on our entire transportation system, in every borough and county of the region. It has brought down trees, ripped out power and inundated tunnels, rail yards and bus depots. “
Charles Seaton, MTA spokesman, tells ENR that while bus service was to resume at 5 p.m. Tuesday, there is no indication so far as to when the city's subway service will resume or on damage cost estimates. "The whole system is still shut down," and MTA is at work pumping out water, which in some stations reaches to the ceiling, Seaton says. Among the most severely damaged are the East River subway tubes, where seven lines run.
Meanwhile, both the Metro-North and Long Island Railroad (LIRR) commuter lines remain closed as ongoing assessment of damages on both railroads takes place, say spokespersons at each agency. Photos on the MTA Website show submerged stations and, in one case, a boat that was swept onto railroad tracks.
"Signal equipment is under water; fried," in stations north of the city, says Marjorie Anders, a Metro-North spokeswoman. The flooding affects the whole Metro-North Hudson River line, she says. Water is up to the platform level at the Spuyten Duyvil stations, where the Harlem River flows into the Hudson and also where the Amtrak tracks cross, she adds.
When there is a storm with such unprecedented severity—exceeding a 100-year event horizon—shutting down a system early, barricading all ingresses and being ready to pump water out and test for salt corrosion is all that can be done, says Nasri Munfah, chairman of tunnel services for HNTB.
LIRR suspended service "a number of hours" prior to Sandy hitting sustained 30 mile per hour winds, Sam Zambuto, an LIRR spokesman. In preparation for the storm, LIRR moved equipment in low-lying areas prone to flooding, to higher ground, he says. "One of the major efforts was to secure the 295 crossing grades [in the LIRR system], which have a total of 690 gates," he adds.
Amtrak and Port Authority of New York and New Jersey lines also remained suspended until further notice.
For once and for now, having a personal vehicle in Manhattan is a huge plus. Five of the MTA’s seven bridges, the Robert F. Kennedy, Verrazano-Narrows, Bronx-Whitestone, Throgs Neck and Henry Hudson bridges, were fully inspected and reopened at noon on Tuesday. The Cross Bay Veterans Memorial and Marine Parkway-Gil Hodges bridges, and the Hugh L. Carey and Queens Midtown Tunnel remain closed.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey also reopened four bridges, but its subway and bus services, Holland Tunnel and all major airports and port terminals remained closed until further notice as of Tuesday evening. Only the Lincoln Tunnel remained open. Photos shared in social media showed LaGuardia Airport's airfield literally under water.
New York State Dept. of Transportation reported 156 total road closures on the state highway systems as of 4 p.m. Tuesday, with 3,900 maintenance staff now beginning damage assessments to state roads and bridges, says spokesperson Jennifer Post. “We have engineers, geotechnical engineers, scuba diving teams that will help in assessments,” she says. Since a bulk of the damage occurred in and around New York City and Long Island, much of NYSDOT’s inventory, which includes about 1300 large dump trucks and 300 loaders, will be deployed there.
Further technical assistance regarding Sandy also is scheduled to arrive early Tuesday evening in White Plains, just north of New York City, in the form of a 12-person “unwatering” team from the Army Corps of Engineers Rock Island District in Illinois.
Ron Fournier, a spokesman for the Rock Island District, said in an email that the team has experience in a variety of areas, including civil, electrical, mechanical and hydraulic engineering as well as contracting and emergency management.
The task force will assist the Corps’ New York District, which is aiding New York state. But Fournier added that the task force itself doesn’t have large pumps or other construction equipment or have such gear on standby contracts. That sort of equipment will have to be procured through emergency contracts. He said pumps would most likely come via contracts with suppliers. They also could be acquired from Corps equipment stock.
The team also doesn’t include pump-operations personnel—they would have to be deployed from other units.
Fournier said the team has experience with the New Orleans metropolitan area and has background to deal with situations in the Gulf Coast that would require dewatering. But he added that the task force’s operating concept involves “basic engineering and contracting principles that would apply to similar situations requiring mechanical means to get rid of floodwaters and steps to prevent flooding from recurring.
Fournier said the core 12-member team “can grow exponentially as it has the expertise of the entire Corps to draw from for additional support, assistance and manpower.”
Planning before and after
One of the precautions LIRR took ahead of the storm was installing a water dam at its storage yard on Manhattan’s west side, where many train tracks "funnel" into a smaller number of tracks, Zambuto says. The yard's tracks lead to Pennsylvania Station. "When there is a storm of this intensity with high tides, there is a potential for Hudson water to come into the yard and, if that were to continue, come down hill onto Penn Station tracks by the platforms," he says.
Under Gov. Cuomo’s direction, “we have all been preparation mode for quite a few days,” says Post. “We were readying equipment, organizing tree-chipping crews, and identifying staff to do flood watches‹they stood on the bridges to watch water levels. We got all equipment ready to go and we’re moving. We contacted many of our contractors to be on standby and buttoned up most of the construction sites.
Still, even with the preparations, Sandy’s magnitude surpassed all pessimistic expectations. At televised news conferences, officials repeatedly noted that it will take days, even weeks to wait for waters to recede, to make full assessments of damage and to begin examining transit equipment for salt intrusion.
Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Craig Fugate told reporters Oct. 30 that after President Obama consulted with governors from New Jersey and New York, he took the highly unusual step of issuing a verbal declaration of a major disaster for some counties in hard-hit New Jersey and New York.
A major-disaster declaration provides the tools for FEMA to reimburse states for costs they incur after a natural disaster, such as the costs of National Guard personnel called in. It also permits FEMA to provide assistance to individuals harmed by the storm.
Fugate said, “And as we get further assessments, we’ll be determining if they’re going to need additional financial reimbursement for uninsured losses for the actual damages that occurred to government facilities and infrastructure.”
Fugate said in a telephone press conference that the quick major-disaster declaration had only happened once before during the Obama administration, for American Samoa was hit by a tsunami. Generally, such actions take longer to be issued and occur after the agency does thorough assessments.
But Fugate said that after speaking with the two governors, “because of the extent of the damages, it was evident to the president that he would issue a verbal declaration.
Fugate also said FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund has about $3.6 billion in cash on hand to respond to Sandy and past storms and other disasters.