Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Media, Weather Experts Confirm NJ Transit Failed To Heed Flood Warnings

The Star Ledger conducted its own investigation into how NJ Transit managed to flood a third of its rail fleet (more than 300 rail cars and locomotives) by staging them in their Kearny and Hoboken yards.

Despite protestations by NJ Transit chief Jim Weinstein claiming that he didn't have warnings indicating that both locations would flood, The Ledger and other weather experts said that they were absolutely warned of the flood potential and it was hubris or ignorance that led to the flood damage.

It's something I've been saying from the moment we learned that the NJ Transit rail fleet was serious damaged by flooding. We now have still more confirmation that the reason that NJ Transit rail service has been so slow to recover to full service is that they lost so much equipment to flooding that could have been avoided (or at least reduced the chance of damage by moving the equipment to higher ground).
A Star-Ledger examination based on interviews, analysis of scores of forecasts and computer models found that on Oct. 28, the Sunday before the storm hit, only one forecast map showed a 10- to 20-percent chance of the Kearny yard flooding on Monday. Most other guidance was far more dire. Additionally, forecasters say NJ Transit never contacted them for help in interpreting the data, and had they, they would have been told Sunday morning the yard had a high to near certain likelihood of taking on water from the storm surge.

"It’s like going to the doctor and deciphering your own MRI," said I. Ross Dickman, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service’s Upton, N.Y. office, which forecasts for Kearny. "To our knowledge, NJ Transit has never called our office for supplementary information, and that’s unfortunate."

It became a costly decision. NJ Transit said it sustained an estimated $100 million in damages to cars and locomotives during the storm, the majority of which were stationed in Kearny.

While other agencies, like New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, spent days moving equipment to higher ground. NJ Transit relied largely on the flawed forecast tool and past experiences. In recent days, Weinstein has testified before the U.S. Senate and in Trenton that NJ Transit needed 12 to 18 hours to shut down its system and move equipment out of harm’s way.

"We now know, under certain circumstances, that that yard can flood," Weinstein told the Assembly Committee Monday. "The dynamics of the storm changed after we shut down our system. Our common sense is now informed by this event, which none of us have seen in our lifetime."

But Dickman said his office, as early as four days prior to Sandy’s landfall, had forecast a potential storm surge of six to 11 feet. Combined with high tide, it’s more than enough to flood the Kearny yard, where the elevation is only 10 feet. He said the threat was made clear in daily webinars NJ Transit employees attended. He also said the tool NJ Transit used, called the Probabilistic Hurricane Storm Surge tool, is one of scores of forecast equipment his office uses to make a forecast and is guidance, not gospel.
Everyone was warning of serious flood risks due to the combination of astronomical high tide combined with a record-breaking storm surge that was likely to occur due to Sandy's tremendous size and wind fetch.

NJ Transit has been repeatedly telling anyone who will listen that they operated on the best information, but that's clearly not the case. The agency has been lying to the likes of the US Senate and New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg who let the agency off the hook as well as NJ State Legislators who also were far too lenient in their questioning of NJ Transit officials who bothered to show up for the hearings.

Weinstein says that they now know that Kearny and Hoboken could flood, but the flood forecasts were indicating precisely that ahead of Sandy. No effort was made to move equipment. The excuse was that moving it to higher ground could strand the equipment or expose the equipment to wind-driven storm damage. That's a debatable point to a certain extent, but leaving hundreds of cars in a flood zone exposed all that equipment to damage.

Putting equipment on higher ground would have avoided the serious flood damage. Sure, some equipment could have suffered damage due to downed trees or power lines, but that wouldn't affect entire trains (locomotives plus the normal allotment of cars they pull or push). It would have affected individual cars that could be taken out of service for repairs. Wind damage could also be reduced if NJ Transit did a better job of maintaining its right of way to trim trees that could result in downed lines or damage to equipment.

The agency failed on all accounts, and what's worse is that legislative leaders and Gov. Christie appear willing to let the agency and its top officials avoid taking responsibility for the damage.

The fact that the MTA and Port Authority utilized weather forecasters' expertise throughout the leadup to the storm shows just how off-base the NJ Transit actions were. Both of the other agencies were in close contact with the National Weather Service and other forecasters and both prepared to send equipment to higher ground. The MTA didn't lose equipment to the storm the way NJ Transit did, and were therefore able to resume service far quicker despite serious damage to East River Tunnels and other rail infrastructure.

Saying that NJ Transit will be better prepared going forward isn't sufficient. More must be done to hold NJ Transit officials responsible for their incompetence.

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