Superstorm Sandy: Adaptation and Resilience in the Tolling Industry

Executive Director & CEO, International Bridge, Tunnel & Turnpike Association

The International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA) hosted A Forum on Super Storm Sandy: Adaptation and Resilience in Miami on January 10, 2013, to capture members’ unique experience with severe weather events, involve front-line tolling agencies in building adaptive solutions to climate change, and bring together the latest thinking on an issue of crucial importance to transportation systems.

“This was a game-changer for all of us who operate infrastructure,” said then IBTTA President Rob Horr, Executive Director of the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority. Hurricane Sandy delivered a harsh lesson “about climate change and the need to prepare for these kinds of superstorms in a way we didn’t previously,” said Ronnie Hakim, Executive Director of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority. “What we saw unfold with Sandy was something we had never seen before in any of our careers, and maybe in two or three generations,” agreed James Fortunato, Vice President and Chief of Operations for New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Bridges and Tunnels.

The group identified emergency procedures and systems as the cornerstone of an effective response to weather disasters. Emerging practices for future storms include:

  • Establishing an integrated emergency operations center
  • Pre-identifying backup locations and systems to speed business recovery when a key facility is lost
  • Stationing engineering teams to assess damage as soon as a storm has passed
  • Anticipating the need for key operational information, like mobile PIN numbers, and basic equipment like phone chargers, flashlights, and flashlight batteries.

A Game-Changing Experience
Participants from Florida, New Jersey, and New York – all veterans of past emergencies and their effects on transportation infrastructure – said they had never imagined the devastation they would experience in the midst of a severe weather disaster

“I never thought I would get the hurricane experience I have had over the years,” said Alfred Lurigados, Deputy Executive Director of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority.

Hurricane Sandy delivered a harsh lesson “about climate change and the need to prepare for these kinds of superstorms in a way we didn’t previously,” Mr. Hakim said. After the storm hit, the agency realized its mission was to restore the greatest possible degree of normalcy, as quickly as possible.

Emergency Procedures and Systems
While participants from Florida had ample opportunity to refine and test their plans through long experience with seasonal storms, some participants from the Northeast pointed to Hurricane Irene in 2011 as the trial run that helped them prepare for Sandy – even if there was some initial expectation that the latest storm would be another false alarm. In contrast to more predictable events like snowstorms, Mr. Hakim and Cedrick Fulton, Director of Bridges, Tunnels, and Terminals for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said hurricanes require a much more nimble response. “The storm path can change dramatically, very quickly,” Mr. Hakim said. Participants from other jurisdictions pointed out that storm tracks sometimes changes faster than weather forecasts can keep up.

The New Jersey Turnpike Authority began implementing its emergency plan five days before Sandy was expected to make landfall, accelerating communication with key staff and external agencies as the storm approached. The group mapped out the expected storm surge with printed wall maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and highlighter pens, “and it proved to be remarkably accurate,” Mr. Hakim said.

Even with the best advance preparation, hurricanes still force emergency managers to ad lib, said hurricane veteran José Quintana, then the maintenance engineer with Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise. “But if you have a good plan to attack the storm, you can work with what you have and assign people to different functions.”

Internal Systems: Communications, Power and Fuel
Mr. Fortunato pointed out that the first rule in an emergency is to be self-sufficient for communications, power, and fuel. “It is a credit to all of us around the table to have plans to deal with all these things on our own,” he said. When severe weather strikes, email and mobile phones are often the first systems lost. One agency backs up its email on Google, so that essential information can still be exchanged when regular networks are down. Mr. Fortunato recalled a satellite phone that performed perfectly in an advance test, but was only useful as a paperweight when a storm actually hit.

When all else failed, he said he was grateful MTA had not decommissioned its landlines and 800 MHz radio systems. “Our radios stayed up through the whole event because they are analog, they are old, and we own the lines and the power,” he recalled. “You really have to think about keeping the old technology mixed in with the new and make sure you can maintain your own systems.”

In Hurricane Sandy, the long delay in getting power back online became debilitating for road operators. In the field, “it was power and supply,” Mr. Fulton said—the dual challenge was insufficient fuel to operate trucks, and insufficient backup power to run fuel pumps.

The MTA was fortunate to have made a significant prior investment in back-up power supplies. “We have generators so massive that the first year we got back $83,000 from [the power utility], because on high demand days we take our facilities off the grid and start up our own generators,” Mr. Fortunato said. When the grid failed, the equipment ran entire toll plazas and emergency facilities.

At one point in the Hurricane Sandy recovery, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority realized it had a couple of extra generators that could be used to reopen private gas stations along the highway, helping to alleviate massive backups at the few other operating stations. By the fourth or fifth day of the crisis, “our maintenance efforts were about keeping the generators up and running,” Mr. Hakim said.

Fortunato said the MTA already owned a fuel truck to move scarce supplies between facilities and keep mobile command centers in operation. But after Hurricane Sandy, “the lesson learned is that we need a gasoline tanker.”

Fulton said underground storage tanks may be problematic from an environmental perspective, but they’re more reliable than an extended supply chain when disaster strikes. “Many of our facilities are resisting pressure from the environmental folks to take the tanks out of the ground, and thank goodness,” he said.

Human Resources
Participants discussed the crucial moments when effective emergency response depended one institutional memory of veteran employees who had been on the job for decades – or on retirees who were called back into service to share their on-the-ground knowledge of complex transportation systems.

Effective human resource management also means bringing in the right expertise to solve each problem. The Port Authority quickly learned that firefighters are “the smartest people for moving water,” Mr. Fulton said, with experience calculating volumes, rises, runs of pipe, and the pump power required to empty a flooded area.

Access to limited fuel supplies became a human resource issue when emergency managers saw they would lose access to essential personnel if they couldn’t drive home. “Several people who knew they’d lost their homes stayed on the lines,” Mr. Fortunato recalled.

Although the focus of the forum was on hurricanes, a couple of participants endorsed an all-hazards approach to emergency preparedness.

“When I look at our hurricane plan, our snow plan, and our emergency plan, they are very much alike,” Mr. Fortunato said. “An emergency is an emergency, and the planning is very similar.

Fulton said agencies in the Northeast had spent years planning responses to man-made incidents and crises that shaped their approach to emergency preparedness. Flooding still didn’t receive much attention for agencies in the Northeast. But now, “we are going to focus a whole lot more on water, surge, and the impacts, duration, and unpredictability” of an event like Hurricane Sandy. After devoting so much attention to the possibility of a rocket-propelled grenade fired from across the water, he said, “The water is right there.”

Public Communication and Social Media
A constant challenge for all publics agencies is to convince citizens to take a coming storm seriously and follow evacuation orders – even if a past experience made the warnings seem redundant.

As Hurricane Sandy approached, agencies had to decide when to notify citizens that roads and bridges were subject to closure. With the storm due on a Monday evening, the initial plan was to launch public announcements that morning—until emergency managers realized that everyone would be at work in New York City by then.

Participants described the websites, email systems, mobile apps, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts they had used to distribute up-to-date information on road safety and closures. Lurigados said social media had been a useful alternate channel for reaching commercial and mainstream media, particularly after email systems failed.

What’s Next
A Forum on Super Storm Sandy: Adaptation and Resilience was the beginning of a dialogue that will be crucial in building great resilience and adaptability across the tolling industry. IBTTA is committed to helping its members prepare for greater weather variability and more frequent severe storms that are widely predicted for the years ahead.

Note: This article is adapted from Report from the Forum on Superstorm Sandy: Adaptation and Resilience available here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eno Center for Transportation.

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