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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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Freight Industry Heeding Lessons of Superstorm Sandy

By Mark Solof

Superstorm Sandy completely shut the port of New York and New Jersey for at least three days, cutting off a vital lifeline of goods for the metropolitan area. Yet the port—and freight industry in general—showed surprising resiliency, bouncing back quickly from the devastation. Since Sandy, the industry has been taking the threat of future extreme weather more seriously and planning for a wider range of possible disruptions. 

Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

Containers are strewn about a freight yard in the Port of New York

and New Jersey on the morning after Sandy.

The high storm surge that accompanied Sandy came as a particular challenge to port tenants and operators. According to Bethann Rooney, manager of port security at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, existing plans in place for hurricanes focused mainly on “wind events” in which it is best to get shipping containers and other equipment close to the ground. 

During Sandy that was exactly the wrong strategy: the storm surge of nearly 14 feet brought up to 5 feet of water on-shore, inundated anything at ground level. In addition to damaged warehouses and freight handling equipment, she said, “There were dozens and dozens of containers washed into the channel.” During the subsequent port shutdown, 25,000 shipping containers had to be diverted to other ports. The loss of over a million gallons of fuel that couldn’t be delivered to petrochemical facilities contributed to a widespread gasoline shortage. 

But the port was not caught flat-footed. Four days before Sandy arrived, the Coast Guard activated its Maritime Transportation System Recovery Unit (MTSRU), an emergency response program created in 2006 in major ports in response to Hurricane Katrina. Through meetings and multiple conference calls each day, the MTSRU helped public and private maritime operators prepare as best as possible for the predicted extreme weather conditions including moving vessels and equipment to protected locations. 

Rooney credits the MTSRU with limiting the storm’s damage and speeding recovery. After the storm, the Coast Guard and other federal agencies moved in with special equipment to survey channels and clear debris. “The Port of New York and New Jersey did a remarkable job recovering from Sandy, reconstituting port operations and reopening in record time,” Rooney said.

Based on the experience, the port, she said, has “completely revamped and rewritten” its emergency plans, with an added focus on water surge events, among other threats. As the rebuilding of damaged road, rail, security and other infrastructure continues, the Port Authority is adapting systems for resiliency—for instance, installing traffic lights with modular electronics that can be removed in advance of storms. Testing and exercises based on the new plans continue.

Truck & Rail

The trucking industry, composed of numerous small and large firms as well as independent operators, has always prided itself on moving goods quickly and efficiently. They were no match for Sandy. Many truckers “got the surprise of their lives that the flooding came that far inland,” said Gail Toth, executive director of the New Jersey Motor Truck Association. “It created extraordinary amounts of damage in areas no one ever anticipated.”

An estimated 2,500 tractors were lost in the state. Many others were damaged when flooding reached wheel wells, requiring brake systems to be disassembled and cleaned. Replacement equipment became hard to get for weeks after the storm. Even as conditions on the roads improved, truckers then faced the “scary” prospect of “rushing around looking for fuel to operate,” said Toth.

Still, like their maritime counterparts, the industry in general bounced back relatively quickly. But the storm left a lasting impression. When the next major storm threat comes, Toth said, truckers “will be moving [their equipment] to higher ground when they can and where they can. People will take weather reports much more seriously.”

The freight railroads also halted operations for days after the storm but were back up and running quickly. A statement issued by CSX highlighted the railroad’s efforts to “help communities recover,” including handling increases in municipal solid waste, construction and demolition debris, and automotive shredded-residue in the storm aftermath. The railroad also helped companies move containers diverted to other ports back to the region and created routing alternatives for freight once handled at the Jersey City to Brooklyn carfloat operation, which was destroyed by the storm and is being rebuilt.

Mark Solof is director, public affairs and communication, at the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority.

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