Peabody award–winning journalist Andrea Bernstein is Senior Editor for Politics & Policy for WNYC News. She has previously served as Metro Editor, Political Director, Director of Transportation Nation, and Senior Reporter.
How New Jersey Transit Failed Sandy's Test
Monday, May 13, 2013 - 04:00 AM
On the weekend before Sandy thundered into New Jersey, transit officials studied a map showing bright green and orange blocks. On the map, the area where most New Jersey Transit trains were being stored showed up as orange – or dry. So keeping the trains in its centrally-located Meadows Maintenance Complex and the nearby Hoboken yards seemed prudent.
And it might have been a good plan. Except the numbers New Jersey Transit used to create the map were wrong.
If officials had entered the right numbers, they would have predicted what actually happened: a storm surge that engulfed hundreds of rail cars, some of them brand new, costing over $120 million in damage and thrusting the system’s passengers into months of frustrating delays.
But the fate of NJ Transit’s trains – over a quarter of the agency’s fleet - didn’t just hang on one set of wrong inputs. It followed years of missed warnings, failures to plan, and lack of coordination under Governor Chris Christie, who has expressed ambivalence about preparing for climate change while repeatedly warning New Jerseyans not to underestimate the dangers of severe storms.
Official response to this blunder has largely stuck to one script: No one could have predicted the severity of the storm, and the yards had never flooded before. But NJ Transit’s miscalculations came even as New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority dived into climate change adaptation preparations. The agency on the east side of the Hudson developed detailed operational plans for extreme weather events, including moving electrical signals from flood-prone subway tunnels - a step that enabled the system to get up and running much faster than predicted. And though the MTA also suffered catastrophic damage during Sandy, only 19 of its 8,000 rail cars were inundated.
A months-long investigation by WNYC/New Jersey Public Radio and The Record examined hundreds of pages of internal NJ Transit and MTA documents and hours of testimony, and entailed interviews with transit, weather and climate change experts. That review found a stark contrast in the way the two agencies prepared for -- and responded to -- climate-change-related weather events, with sharply different results.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo spoke to his transit chief, Joe Lhota (who has since left the agency to run for mayor of New York), beginning on the Thursday before the storm and “regularly” in the lead-up to the storm, according to an aide. The two men even met accidentally by the mouth of the Battery Tunnel as Sandy was peaking.
“The MTA bounced back faster than any other governmental entity,” Lhota boasted three months after Sandy in a speech to a New York City business group. Then he noted –- pointedly -- that it had taken NJ Transit three months to get up and running again.
The weekend before Sandy rolled in, Gov. Christie and NJ Transit executive director Jim Weinstein did not speak, and the Governor was not involved in the decision to store the trains in a flood zone.
“If I’m making the decisions at that level of specificity, then I’d be under water myself,” Christie told New Jersey Public Radio. Instead, he spoke with his transportation commissioner, James Simpson.
According to emails obtained through the Open Public Records Act, Simpson, who is Weinstein’s boss, had only cursory communications with Weinstein. A spokesman for Simpson said he didn’t have information about the number of times the commissioner communicated with the Governor in the days leading up to the storm.
NJ Transit officials have repeatedly defended the agency’s decision to park the trains in low-lying yards in Hoboken and the Meadowlands.
The Hudson River outside NJ Transit's Hoboken Terminal/accarino via flickr
“The comparison of the MTA and NJ Transit is akin to comparing apples and oranges,” said John Durso Jr., a spokesman for NJ Transit. “They are two very different public transit agencies – different in scope, different in operations, and different in challenges.”
The MTA is the largest transit agency in the country, and carries seven times the riders of NJ Transit. But NJ Transit is the largest statewide transit agency in the country.
Back in December, Weinstein was called before a State Assembly hearing to explain NJ Transit’s storm preparations.
“I can tell you decisions on where to keep our locomotives were sound, based on all the information we had at the time we had to make that decision, which was midday Sunday,” James Weinstein told the committee. “The facts are the weather models we evaluated at the time had an 80 to 90 percent chance the rail yards would stay dry. 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.”
But that reading has brought derision from weather and climate change experts.
“It just shows they don’t understand A) the hazard and B) the risk,” says Columbia University Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory scientist Klaus Jacob, one of the nation’s premier experts on transit planning for climate change. “The past, particularly when it comes to climate change, is not the guide for the future.”
“The NYC Subway System had Begun to Become Undone”
The MTA’s readiness for Sandy had its roots in an experience five years before the superstorm ever hit.
The forecast for August 8, 2007 wasn’t that different from a lot of days in late summer – hot and hazy, with rain developing at night, showers and thunderstorms possible. It wasn’t until 6:08 that morning that the weather service issued a flash flood warning. Not long after -- “at the height of the morning rush hour and a high tide in parts of the region,” as a report on the storm later described -- “the New York metro area suffered a severe and largely unpredicted storm that brought with it not only heavy rains and flooding, but the first tornados to hit parts of Brooklyn in over 100 years.”
As the storm was hitting, Elliot Sander, who was then-Governor Eliot Spitzer’s appointee to run the MTA, was driving back from an event in outer Queens. “Fifteen minutes, half an hour into the storm, I began to hear reports,” Sander said in an interview in his offices in lower Manhattan, where he now runs a private construction firm. “The New York City subway system had become to come undone.”
August 8, 2007: Subway riders grill an MTA employee after a deluge knocked out the NYC transit system/Swerz via flickr
Ultimately, 19 major segments were affected. By mid-morning, two and a half million transit customers were stranded, and Metro-North service into and out of Grand Central Terminal was suspended.
“It was clear that what had transpired was an event the MTA was not prepared for, and we needed to understand how it happened,” Sander said. So he called the governor “and said I really think you should order me to give a report in about a month, and he agreed.”
That report found failures in nearly every area – not having redundant weather forecasting capability, not having a coordinated emergency command center, not having alternative service plans, not having staff in the right places at the right time, botching internal communications, and ineffectively dealing with the public, sending already heated August tempers past the boiling point.
This was a relatively easy time for Spitzer and Sander to issue this kind of report – Spitzer and Sander had been in office just seven months. But there was something quite unusual in the report nonetheless. At a relatively early stage – in 2007 – it predicted: “Storms such as the one the New York region experienced on August 8 are likely to increase in frequency and intensity due to climate change.” And it recommended that “multiple options for reducing the risks need to be explored and their cost estimated.”
A year later, the MTA had completed and published just such a study. “MTA Adaptations to Climate Change” was written by Klaus Jacob and a team of high-powered Columbia University scientists. It clearly mapped the system’s most vulnerable points and recommended a series of specific steps.
Vents on flood-prone stations were raised. Stairwells that had been conduits of flood waters were lifted up. And, most importantly for the MTA’s response to Sandy, climate change adaptation measures -- including preparing for catastrophic storm surges and flooding -- were incorporated into the authority’s hurricane plan, several three-inch thick binders with detailed operational plans, including moving trains to higher ground.
The MTA has had its stumbles. In the blizzard of 2010, the authority was caught flat-footed. Passengers were stranded on buses on snow-bound streets for as much as 19 hours while others were stuck in unheated train cars. But in August 2011, as Irene moved into the Northeast, chairman Jay Walder ordered the first shutdown of the MTA in its 100-plus year history. Shutting down the system half a day before the storm arrived confused passengers. But the MTA said it was necessary – because trains had to be moved from vulnerable yards, like one in Coney Island, to higher ground.
During Irene, the MTA suffered huge losses, most notably on Metro-North’s Port Jervis line, where 17 miles of track were buckled like chewing gum. But, as Walder said after the storm passed: “the worst fear that we had, which was that the under-river tunnels on the East River would flood with salt water, were not realized. We certainly dodged something there.”
“NJ Transit is Already Experiencing Climate Change Impacts”
The MTA’s plans were considered so exemplary that they were incorporated into a 2011 report by the Federal Transit Administration, “Flooded Bus Barns and Buckled Rails: Public Transportation and Climate Change Adaptation.” The report issued a blunt warning to transit agencies: “Climate change impacts are here and will increase in the future.”
The 116-page report singled out storm surges as a particular climate threat, especially for coastal states, and warned specifically of flood risks to maintenance facilities, and – on page three – highlighted the need to respond to flood risks by “moving vehicles and other mobile assets out of harm’s way.”
NJ Transit had that report. In 2010, David Gillespie, the agency’s Director of Energy and Sustainability, rustled up funding for his own study: “Resilience of NJ Transit Assets to Climate Impacts.” The report was commissioned, Gillespie explained in a presentation to planners in March 2012, to help him sort through a pile of literature that he described as “two-and-a-half feet high.”
The report, prepared by First Environment of Boonton, NJ, also did not mince words. “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal,” it said. And, on page three, it referenced the “Flooded Bus Barns” report, emphasizing that “NJ Transit is already experiencing many of the climate impacts (flooding, excessive heat, larger storms) that are expected to occur in the Northeast over the next 20 years.”
The report specifically did not include recommendations for how to handle train cars. “The mitigation plan we have for moveable assets – our rolling stock – is we move it out of harm’s way when something’s coming,” Gillespie said in his presentation. Still, the report suggested the Meadows Maintenance Complex (MMC), located on dozens of acres in Kearny and positioned between the Passaic and Hackensack Rivers -- might have actually been in harms way in a “storm surge area.”
Gillespie gave several presentations of the report at professional conferences. He shared the report with counterparts at other transit agencies and with the Federal Transit Administration. But, requests under New Jersey’s Open Public Records act for all of Gillespie’s emails referring to climate change (which filled an entire box) unearthed no evidence he sounded alarms at NJ Transit about the report, or that he even delivered it to the rail operations team.
A box of printed out NJ Transit emails reviewed by WNYC and The Record/Kate Hinds
WNYC’s request for an interview with Gillespie was denied.
“I’ve seen a copy of the (First Environment) report,” NJ Transit's Weinstein said in his legislative testimony, post-Sandy, “although I confess I have not studied it.”
Klaus Jacob, who did a pro-bono study for the MTA of its climate vulnerabilities, offered to provide a detailed analysis for NJ Transit, inviting officials to participate in a high-level climate change task force for local transit managers.
“Those who took it seriously came to every meeting and gave us all the data to really do the analysis for them,” Jacob said. By contrast, “NJ Transit showed up every so often and certainly did not provide any internal data to assess their own vulnerability. It’s like kids in a school class. You know who are the ones who are really interested and the ones who are not.”
NJ Transit has an emergency command, run out of the NJ Transit police unit. In the wake of 9/11, according to testimony by the NJ Transit police chief Christopher Trucillo at the December hearing, “a large portion of our trainings are around active man-made events, like shooters and terrorists.” Trucillo said NJ Transit had done a table-top exercise around a blackout, but he did not indicate the agency had modeled flooding response, and he agreed that should be a future focus for the agency.
At that same hearing, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the Democratic chair of the Transportation Committee, grilled NJ Transit executives about their Sandy preparations.
“They viewed their planning as a police action,” Wisniewski told WNYC. “When they came in front of our committee, they identified all of the people who were involved in their emergency preparedness planning – and they (were) all police officers.”
NJ Transit has done a good job with public safety but not weather events, he said. “There have to be weather professionals who can adequately advise the agency on where the impact of the storm is going to be felt.…That was their blind spot. That was the one spot that they just didn’t really thoroughly examine enough because they just believed they had enough information and they didn’t need to go any further."
The December hearing got off to a rocky start: Transportation Commissioner Simpson was not in attendance, which caught the committee off-guard. “He did not call before this meeting,” said Wisniewski at the time, describing Simpson’s absence as “a sign of disrespect.”
Luck Should Never Be Part Of Your Critical Planning
Sitting in for Simpson was NJ Transit's Weinstein, who repeated what was – and is – the agency’s response: that the MMC and Hoboken yards were not in flood zones, that they had never flooded before, and that – despite evidence to the contrary – NJ Transit had no information that would indicate a flood threat.
“Frankly, I wish I had had the foresight and understanding to know that a yard in the Meadowlands in Kearny – that the western part of the yard in Hoboken, which had never flooded before, was going to flood – but I didn’t,” Weinstein testified.
Then Assemblyman Upendra Chivakula (D-Somerset) took Weinstein to task.
“New Jersey [suffered damage to] one out of four cars,” Chivakula said. “As compared to the MTA – they lost only 22 cars, they have a fleet of more than 8,000. They are geographically next to us, to New Jersey. Why is that – that they did not suffer that kind of damage, why we suffered much bigger damage?”
“If there are things that we can learn from them, we will learn from them,” Weinstein replied. “We meet (with the MTA) on a regular basis…I would suggest to you that they’re different railroads, they’re different circumstances, and to make that comparison – I’m not in a position to do that now. I think they should be grateful for their good luck.”
NJ Transit executive director James Weinstein, at the agency's December 2012 board meeting/Kate Hinds
“You know, it never hurts to be lucky,” Gary Szatkowski of the National Weather Service said in a phone interview with WNYC. “But it should never be part of your critical planning.”
In the days leading up to Sandy, NJ Transit was at the receiving end of a series of increasingly chilling reports from the National Weather Service that warned of record storm tides of up to 15 feet. “Very Dangerous Hurricane Sandy,” read the briefing issued Sunday, October 28. It contained a personal plea from Szatkowski to take the storm seriously.
“If you think this storm is over-hyped and exaggerated, please err on the side of caution,” Szatkowski wrote.
That kind of warning “never happens,” he later told WNYC.
New Jersey’s state climatologist, David Robinson, told a panel at a January transportation conference that the forecasting was “brilliant.” “Sandy hadn’t even formed yet,” he said, “and models were showing a major storm.… We had plenty of warning.”
But despite this, NJ Transit was not prepared for the storm surge that swept in and engulfed its yards. Weinstein maintains he was at the yards at around five p.m. on Monday evening when the storm was on its way. “There was no flooding, no indication of flooding. The elevation is about 10 feet. A storm surge of six feet reinforces what we are telling you.”
But the prediction was for up to 15 feet, and even at low probabilities, Szatkowski says those numbers “convey huge, dangerous risk to both life & property.… Based on an analysis, if there was a 10 percent risk of a particular bridge collapsing over the next 72 hours, would that be deemed an acceptable risk? I don’t think so. A 10 percent risk of a catastrophe is huge.”
Szatkowski also looked at the maps that New Jersey transit provided the Assembly as back-up for their conclusion the yards wouldn’t flood. “They’re incorrect,” he told us when WNYC showed him the maps. The inputs showed the storm going northeast at 10 mph. Actually, it was going west-northwest at 20 mph -- faster, and from the sea, which meant more water could be pushed up onto land, creating much more danger, Szatkowski says.
Graphic: A NJ Transit map incorporating the wrong data -- the storm was actually moving WNW at 20 MPH/NJ Transit document sent to NJ State Assemblyman Wisniewski
So, he ran the right numbers for us. The railyards are underwater.
Graphic created by National Weather Service showing accurate flood predictions for NJ Transit's rail yards/National Weather Service
Across the river, the MTA had run its own maps –SLOSH maps, for Sea, Lake, and Overland Surge from Hurricanes. SLOSH maps are computer models developed by the National Weather Service to estimate storm surge heights. MTA officials did not want to comment on NJ Transit’s storm preparations. But they told WNYC how they use SLOSH maps.
“The SLOSH maps are not a real time tool,” says John Gaul, the vice president of service delivery for New York City Transit. “They’re a planning tool, to assist us in refining the hurricane plan before the fact.”
The MTA’s plan called for moving its trains out of low-lying yards hours before the storm; each movement was precisely clocked out. And even though the MTA had also never seen storm surges like Sandy, that didn’t dissuade officials from carrying out the plan.
“For the general public, looking at the numbers and looking at the forecasts, they might not have believed it because they had never lived through something like that,” says MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg. “But for those of us involved in planning and operating and preparing the system, the numbers are the numbers. Nobody’s going to sit here and look at a scary forecast and say, that’s never happened, we don’t have to worry about that. We worry -- that’s our job.”
The MTA plan for severe storms is detailed in five binders, each three inches thick. The agency also provided its timeline and plans for moving its trains.
NJ Transit’s Weinstein testified that his agency put together its storm plan long before Sandy.
“There was a very detailed plan complied by the railroad -- not the Friday before the storm, but in the wake of Irene on where to store the equipment,” he said. “There were lengthy calls on where the equipment is going and it’s all documented and detailed.”
WNYC and The Record asked, separately, for documentation of NJ Transit’s hurricane preparedness plans. Both news organizations received the same reply: a three-and-a-half page document with the words “New Jersey Rail Operations Hurricane Plan” atop the first page.
Everything else was blacked out.
Weinstein has declined requests for interviews. WNYC emailed NJ Transit a list of 14 questions, including a request for any assessments by the agency of its mistakes and what plans NJ Transit had for avoiding similar losses in the future.
“Recent events including the uncovering of an Al Qaeda-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,” replied John Durso Jr., the spokesman for NJ Transit. “NJ Transit's focus is the safe, comfortable and efficient transport of the nearly 900,000 customers between three states every single day. That is our priority and our focus - and it will not change. “
Six months after Sandy, NJ Transit’s actions leading up to the storm remain unclear. The agency has contracted with the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service to conduct an after-action review of its performance, but has not said when – and if – the results will be made public. No one at NJ Transit would provide an explanation for why the weather data was input incorrectly. And Governor Christie – not usually so sanguine – has defended the agency.
“I think these guys made the best judgment they could under the circumstances,” Christie said in January. “Sometimes, people make wrong decisions. It happens. It's not a hanging offense."
Audio for Part II of this report can be played below.