[OPINION] Hurricane Sandy – Part Two

by Michael Sweeney, PE

When Hurricane Sandy roared ashore last October, it brought more than sustained, damaging winds. Because of its tremendous size, Sandy blew a storm surge into the New Jersey and New York coastlines that created devastation in the region to the tune of more than $60 billion.

But that $60 billion “total” estimate speaks to destruction we all witnessed—apparent damage—to battered boardwalks, beaches, businesses, homes and transportation infrastructure. While speedy repair work and first rounds of federal dollars are contributing to the massive rebuilding effort, a second looming wave of damage is beginning to unfold.

Latent damage—the damage we can’t see, that we don’t always detect—is a huge issue we are just now beginning to comprehend. This unknown scope of damage was clearly illustrated in the recent fires on the boardwalk, caused by salt water penetration of the electrical wiring to structures along the already devastated New Jersey shore. Floodwaters that submerged our transportation infrastructure and halted service have created mold and corrosion and weakened essential structures. In August, the Metropolitan Transit Authority closed the Montague tube, a key subway tunnel connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan, for a year to complete repairs. While the water from Sandy had been quickly pumped out, the salt badly damaged critical electrical components in the tunnels, impacting service.

A host of other vexing problems in the transportation system have yet to be identified, and until they are, we don’t know how serious and urgent they will be. For example, different sections of transit communications and control systems have been replaced; no one knows how well these systems using disparate components will perform over the long run. If these systems fail, there will be major delays at commuter rail and freight points including bridges and tunnels. Will federal funds be available for these future projects? Transportation agencies now face this added conundrum to identify vulnerabilities, assess them and request aid and disbursements based on best guesses.

Currently, transportation agencies have issued task orders to consultants for assessments for obvious damage. However, the agencies must retrace their efforts and take a deeper look at latent damage that may have occurred. They should prepare broad grant requests for additional federal assistance for destruction that isn’t obvious—a bit like the proverbial needle in a haystack. They must act now to take full advantage of this opportunity to maximize recovery as they must do so no later than mid-December 2013 with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Federal Transit Administration, Federal Highway Administration, Housing and Urban Development, and any other agencies participating in disaster funding.

We need only look back to the devastation from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and resulting damage to roadways to understand the enormity of latent damage. Within a few months after this terrible storm, critical public transportation infrastructure components including transit, roads, bridges and levees were fully assessed for latent damage and repair and strengthening strategies were implemented. Federal, state and local municipal agencies joined to study and then fund the repair of 500 miles of what had been submerged roadways in and around New Orleans.

Similar collaboration, coordination and communication are needed here. According to an HNTB colleague who served as a project manager and adviser for Texas recovery efforts following Hurricanes Ike and Dolly, agencies have to take a comprehensive look at the rebuilding effort to maximize their recovery. They need to set stretch goals to receive the full amount of benefits that FEMA and HUD are able to provide. The post-Sandy recovery effort should be treated as an opportunity to repair latent damage, strengthen key infrastructure components and create minimal redundancies in function to increase resilience in our local and regional economy.

By putting best practices from past disasters like Katrina into play now, we can make sure that repairs and reconstruction are comprehensive and fully-funded. In so doing, we not only strengthen and harden our infrastructure, we help safeguard our transportation services when the next major disaster occurs.

Mike Sweeney is a national infrastructure expert specializing in complex transportation infrastructure programs. He is a senior vice president and metro New York area district leader in HNTB Corporation’s New York City office. Contact him at msweeney@hntb.com.

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