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As superstorm Sandy barreled toward the tri-state area, two of the nation’s largest transportation agencies worked to safeguard their systems, moving buses and rail cars to areas they thought would be protected.
But NJ Transit and New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority had vastly different rates of success. Eleven MTA rail cars were damaged, compared with 342 pieces of NJ Transit equipment.
The MTA, which serves more than 11 million passengers on a typical weekday, moved its 6,200-plus subway cars to higher ground, along with more than 500 locomotives and work cars. The agency identified more than 20 areas at risk for flooding. It used wind speed as a gauge for when to shut down operations. Many other moves took place, all detailed in a hurricane plan released as a part of a request under New York’s Freedom of Information Law.
What NJ Transit did to prepare for Sandy remains largely secret. The agency that operates bus and light-rail and commuter rail services declined to release its strategy when requested under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act. When asked for communications regarding Sandy preparations, NJ Transit released a 3-page “Rail Operations Hurricane Plan” that was stripped of all information except for the title.
Agency spokesman John Durso Jr. said that detailing the agency’s storm preparation plans would create a security risk.
“Recent events including the uncovering of an al-Qaida-led terrorist plot targeting rail service reinforces why NJ Transit will not disclose sensitive information |that could potentially undermine the security of our transit infrastructure, our customers or our employees,” Durso wrote in an email last week.
NJ Transit has been widely criticized for leaving its trains in low-lying areas as Sandy approached, specifically the Meadows Maintenance Complex — a sprawling 72-acre property in Kearny near the Hackensack and Passaic rivers — and its Hoboken yard alongside the Hudson River. The move is estimated to have |cost the agency $120 million in damage, money NJ Transit hopes to recover through insurance and federal aid payments.
The Record, in collaboration with WNYC/New Jersey Public Radio, has asked for details about whether NJ Transit had identified locations in its statewide rail network that were at risk for flooding prior to Sandy; whether rail crews were on duty and prepared for Sandy prior to its surge making landfall; and if NJ Transit police officers assigned to its Office of Emergency Management were trained in reading weather forecast data.
The agency’s leadership has declined to discuss its preparations in detail — instead referring the news organizations to information on its website, prepared press releases issued during Sandy and testimony that NJ Transit Executive Director Jim Weinstein has given during appearances on Capitol Hill and in Trenton before the Assembly Transportation Committee.
Included among the Sandy documents NJ Transit released are weather and climate change reports and emails exchanged among the railroad’s leadership — including Weinstein, state Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson, rail operations Vice President Kevin O’Connor and Durso — in the days leading up to, during, and after Sandy made landfall 40 miles north of Cape May on Oct. 29.
Included in more than 800 pages of emails were discussions about press releases, talking points for reporters and updates for the governor’s office. The documents did show that NJ Transit prepared for Sandy in many ways. Diesel engines were ordered to be fueled. Emergency contact lists were shared. Employee unions were notified that sick time during the storm wouldn’t be honored without a medical note. Locomotives and cars were moved across the system.
However, hundreds of emails that were requested about how storm preparations were handled at the highest levels of the agency were not released. Security concerns were cited as a reason for denying the public access to those records.
In March, The Record sued NJ Transit under the state’s Open Public Records Act seeking access to those emails and the Hurricane Plan in unredacted form as well as the hundreds of emails that were withheld by the agency in their entirety. That lawsuit is pending.
Weinstein told the Assembly Transportation Committee in December that “the plan that was developed for the relocation of equipment is something that was put together by the railroad months before the action and they have lengthy conference calls on where the equipment is going and who is responsible for it and it’s all documented and detailed.”
In an Oct. 27 email — two days before Sandy struck — Simpson directed the heads of the state Department of Transportation, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and Weinstein to “finalize plans for Sandy and make sure we have planned for the worst.” Simpson declined to comment for this story.
And in an email describing talking points the day Sandy came ashore, the agency itself included a line that said, “No one should underestimate the power of the storm. At NJ Transit, we took this advice to heart.”
Weather-related documents from the agency said there was a 10 to 20 percent chance of a 10-foot storm surge in Hoboken and a 5-foot surge in Kearny. After Sandy, Weinstein characterized it differently, telling the Assembly committee that there was an 80 to 90 percent chance the yards would not flood.
Gary Szatkowski, chief meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Mount Holly, said the conclusions NJ Transit drew from that document weren’t sound.
“There was a 10 to 20 percent risk of a storm surge flooding in the rail yard area so they turned that around and said, well, there’s an 80 to 90 percent chance based on this forecast from the weather service that this rail yard wouldn’t flood,” Szatkowski said.
“If you’re talking to your doctor and your doctor says there’s a 20 percent chance you could have a heart attack that could be serious to fatal in the next 72 hours, I wouldn’t turn that around and say there’s an 80 to 90 percent chance everything is fine.”
Szatkowski said that given the proximity of the Kearny and Hoboken yards to water, “a 20 percent risk of even a 5- or an 8-foot storm surge is a catastrophe … whether you’re talking about people who live on the barrier islands or trains in a rail yard that has potential to flood.”
At the December hearing, Weinstein said, “Our decisions were informed by the fact that neither of those rail yards had ever flooded. It is entirely wrong to characterize them as flood-prone.”
Columbia University scientist Klaus Jacob, who helped write a report for the National Research Council on how climate change could affect transportation systems, said of the decision: “It just shows they don’t understand A) the hazard and B) the risk. The past, particularly when it comes to climate change, is not the guide for the future.”
Durso and O’Connor spoke briefly with The Record and WNYC last Wednesday, after NJ Transit’s monthly board meeting. But when asked why the agency didn’t prepare for the 10 to 20 percent chance that the rail yards would flood — as climate experts had warned — Durso abruptly ended the interview and refused to allow O’Connor to reply.
Weinstein and O’Connor have said the dynamics of the storm changed after the agency began its shutdown on Oct. 28, the day before Sandy hit. O’Connor said at that point it was too late.
“Having a plan to remove the equipment is not possible in 12 hours. There is no way I can move every piece of equipment out of the MMC [Meadows Maintenance Complex in Kearny] in 12 hours,” he said.
But weather reports that Sandy was tracking inland came as early as Thursday morning, Oct. 25 — nearly four days before the storm hit and well before NJ Transit had even come to a decision on whether to shut down its bus, rail and light-rail lines.
Szatkowski looked at forecast documents The Record obtained from NJ Transit and saw a problem with how data was entered into weather modeling software used by NJ Transit.
The software requires emergency managers to input current conditions to predict the future track of a storm. Szatkowski’s conclusion, after seeing the NJ Transit documents, was that someone incorrectly entered the direction of Sandy as heading northeast, instead of the storm’s actual direction — west-northwest.
When the correct information is entered into the model, Szatkowski said, the software predicts a catastrophic inland storm.
The MTA’s plan shows the agency had identified specific locations across its rail system that are prone to flooding and included instructions to avoid yards that sit in storm surge areas when storing equipment. It also said that when sustained gale force winds reach 39 mph, rail should be shut down.
“Above that, it’s unsafe to have our people outside on tracks, unsafe to have our customers on platform,” said MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg.
Durso did not respond to a question about whether NJ Transit’s hurricane planning considers wind speed in deciding on a shutdown.
In an Oct. 27 email, a United Airlines official asked Paul Wyckoff, a member of NJ Transit’s executive staff, if a shutdown will occur when winds reach 40 knots or about 46 mph. The airline was trying to plan transportation for its employees.
Wyckoff responded: “I don’t believe there is a hard and fast metric.”
Damage to MTA equipment following Sandy was significantly less than what NJ Transit experienced. In fact, in addition to the 11 cars that needed repairs after the storm, another seven locomotives and six rail cars were damaged — they were left in NJ Transit’s possession and stored in the Hoboken and Kearny yards. NJ Transit has an agreement with Metro-North to provide service out of Port Jervis and Spring Valley and uses Metro-North Railroad equipment.
When asked at the December hearing why NJ Transit suffered much greater losses than New York’s MTA, Weinstein replied: “I think they should be grateful for their good luck.”
Weinstein and O’Connor have repeatedly said the agency could never anticipate flooding in the Kearny and Hoboken rail yards. But at an NJ Transit board meeting in September 2011, before Hurricane Irene hit New Jersey, O’Connor told NJ Transit’s board that in order to protect employees and equipment from damage and injury during Irene, “the decision was made to secure fleet in low-lying locations, such as Bay Head, Hoboken, Suffern, Gladstone and Atlantic City.”
When asked why flooding in Hoboken couldn’t be anticipated during Sandy if the area was classified as “low-lying” during Irene, O’Connor said he was referring to the Hoboken terminal as low-lying, not the rail yard.
But documents show a different story. Months before Sandy struck, NJ Transit had in its possession a $46,000 climate change study — commissioned by the agency — that warned of higher storm surges and said the Kearny and Hoboken rail yards sit in “storm surge areas.”
Now, the agency has commissioned a new report — one to analyze NJ Transit’s performance during Sandy.
“Clearly there are lessons that can be learned,” Durso said.
Reporting for this article was developed in co-operation with WNYC/New Jersey Public Radio. WNYC reporters Kate Hinds and Andrea Bernstein contributed.