Monday, October 28, 2013

A Year Later: Rebuilding After Sandy Continues

A year ago, Hurricane Sandy was churning off the East Coast and about to deliver one of the greatest left hooks anyone had ever seen. The storm was projected to make landfall within 100 miles or so of New York City, and would do so at an astronomical high tide. While it was not the strongest storm in the Atlantic Basin's history, it was the largest storm - with a wind shield of 1,100 miles.

That combination led to fears that entire parts of the New York metro area would be flooded out.

Those fears turned out to be right on the money.

Parts of the city and Jersey Shore and Long Island were indeed flooded out and battered by Sandy. While the storm didn't produce the kinds of flooding rains that have been visited by storms like Floyd or Irene, it was the storm surge that caused tremendous damage to New York City. Here are a bunch of before-after photos showing how far we've come in the cleanup and rebuilding efforts.

More than 200 people were killed by the storm in all, including dozens in both New York and New Jersey. The Jersey Shore was battered and some of the most iconic photos were taken from Seaside Heights where the famous rollercoaster and amusement park pier were swallowed up by the angry churning ocean.

The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island were both overrun by the waters in New York Harbor, and it has only been in the last two weeks that the Statue of Liberty was reopened to the public after its piers and electrical systems were repaired. Ellis Island is reopening to the public this week, although many pieces in the museum collection are still undergoing repairs and conservation efforts.

The flood waters inundated Lower Manhattan, Hoboken, Jersey City, and hundreds of miles of shoreline throughout the region.

Communities hardest hit included Breezy Point, Long Beach, Hoboken, and other coastal and low lying areas. Breezy Point was site of one of the worst sights during the crisis - a raging fire during the height of the storm that ended up burning more than a 100 homes with firefighters powerless to do anything. Since then, there have been accusations and lawsuits against Con Ed that they didn't turn power off to the area, which could have saved the area from the fires that started when electrical systems were inundated.

While some are still waiting for insurance to come through or have decided that rebuilding isn't worth the effort and have sought homes on higher ground elsewhere, others have started rebuilding.

Many shore communities have made an effort to rebuild damaged boardwalks. A few were able to rebuild in time for this summer, but many others were only able to get a few sections done or otherwise cleared debris so that beach access was assured.

Yet risks remain from Sandy damage. A devastating fire destroyed more than 50 businesses in Seaside Park just two weeks ago. The fire apparently started in wiring underneath a portion of the town's boardwalk that survived Sandy but was damaged by the flood waters. The damage went undetected until after it caused the fire destroying businesses and buildings that had survived Sandy.

The New York City subways, which famously run 24-7-365, were shut down ahead of the storm. Efforts were made to try and protect key assets - the tunnels and entrances in low lying areas, but those efforts failed in Lower Manhattan as the temporary measures were no match for the historic storm surge that flooded Lower Manhattan and crippled the MTA's subway system.

In all 9 subway tunnels were flooded, and repairs to those tunnels will continue for the foreseeable future. One, the Montague Tube, will be out of service for more than a year as the entire tunnel needs to be rebuild and reinforced against future storm damage. Every piece of electronic gear, every switch, every signal, and even the rails and ties, have to be replaced because they sat in the salt water that flooded the tunnels. The MTA's ability to get the system largely up and running, including a bus bridge while the subway service was being restored will be a case-study in how to deal with disaster management for decades to come. It also once again showed how and why the subway system is so critical to a functioning and growing metropolis like New York City. It's why the City and State must come up with the money to invest in growing the system and reinforcing and modernizing the system. The subways are integral to the city's very survival and nothing can replace a functioning subway system or else the city will grind to a halt under the strain of too many people trying to get to their places of employment.

While the MTA heroically managed to get service restored quickly, including to the A line to the Rockaways that was washed out by the storm surge in Jamaica Bay, the system continues to be plagued by delays and signal failures throughout the affected subway tunnels and flooded areas due to salt water corrosion. All of those issues will have to be addressed to keep the system functioning. Gov. Andrew Cuomo made a point of touting the MTA restoration efforts, but he's refused thus far to commit to increasing the state aid to the MTA to rebuild and reinforce the system further adding to the agency's debt load as it needs to borrow to make the necessary improvements. That's a substantial failure on his part.

Across the Hudson, NJ Transit is still dealing with all the damage to its system, and the fact that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie refuses to take action against James Weinstein for not implementing and overseeing the protection of the rail fleet that ended up being purposefully stored in flood zones in Kearny's Meadows Yard and Hoboken's terminal yard. It's understandable that damage to fixed equipment - the switches and repair facilities - couldn't be reduced due to their location, but the rail fleet suffered damage that continued to hamper commuters for months after. That was completely avoidable. NJ Transit ignored flooding risks and allowed hundreds of railcars and locomotives to be flooded out. The damage has yet to be completely repaired.

The Port Authority's bridges and tunnels weathered the storm mostly intact, but there was significant damage at LaGuardia Airport, where flooding swept through the terminals and into the parking lots, and PATH was completely overwhelmed between Hoboken and World Trade Center. It took months before service was restored.

The rebuilding around the region continues to be uneven as insurance companies, FEMA, and state and localities are dealing with all kinds of issues. Some areas have been bought out by the government so as to return those areas to marsh lands instead of development.

Other parts are building new and improved reinforced dune networks - steel sheet piles buried underneath sand dunes planted with sea grass. Some of those efforts have been hampered by landowners who protest the eminent domain easements necessary to allow their construction. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the added value of sand dune protection must be weighed against any potential lost views. Frankly, the fact that the person lost views ignores the fact that the sand dunes act to protect those homes and the homes of their neighbors from the devastating storm surge.

The Hurricane also provided yet another clarifying moment when Congressional Republicans basically thwarted any action to fund rebuilding aid, re-funding the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), and delayed action for 91 days. Many of these same Republicans have their hands out with no strings attached and no conditions when disaster aid is requested for their own districts, but they demanded that any disaster aid include offsets from other parts of the budget, and otherwise imposed conditions on disaster aid that had not been done in any prior instance.

The delay had real ramifications - delaying the time for which people could be reimbursed from the NFIP, including for floods occurring elsewhere in the country as well as in the New York metro area.

Utilities are still dealing with the disaster too - having to ramp up their efforts to disaster-proof their systems. Sandy revealed that far too many key assets are in flood zones and that the utilities are ill prepared to deal with the scope of damage. New Jersey's PSE&G fared far better than other New Jersey utilities, but power-restoration efforts were far slower than anyone wants. PSE&G has proposed a multi-year multi-billion dollar improvement project, which includes taller power poles that are more resistant to wind and tree damage, and new gear that reduces the chances that downed lines and poles take out power adjacent power lines. Despite those improvements, there are communities that are balking at the taller poles, complaining that it changes the character of their towns. It's NIMBYism at its core, but these will be some of the same people who will complain loudest when the power goes out.

The power outages also caused significant shortages of gasoline - and while New York State is building a gas reserve to deal with future disasters, efforts to require gas stations to have generators on hand to power the pumps when the power goes out have faltered. That's a mistake.

A gas reserve doesn't matter much if the gas stations lack the power to operate the pumps. An effort should be made to require gas stations that are renovating or replacing their gas tanks to upgrade to include generator backups - whether portable generators or fixed generators on site to provide backup. The gas shortages meant long lines and the governors in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut were forced to impose odd-even rationing to make sure that lines weren't out of control.

Cross Posted at LGF.

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