Superstorm Sandy: 5 years later, New Jersey is still storm proofing
The Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission in Newark continues to make improvements five years after Superstorm Sandy.
When Superstorm Sandy barreled into the New Jersey coast five years ago Sunday, it pushed a 12-foot storm surge from Newark Bay across the campus of the fifth largest sewage treatment plant in the country, damaging equipment and knocking out power.
As a result, some 840 million gallons of raw sewage poured untreated into the Passaic River. And during the three weeks after the storm, as the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission’s 140-acre facility struggled to get back to full service, 4.4 billion gallons of partially treated sewage were released into New York Harbor – enough to fill the Empire State Building 16 times.
Sandy’s wrath showed how vulnerable New Jersey’s infrastructure is to damage from severe storms.
Many key pieces of state infrastructure — from hospitals and power substations to police headquarters and even gas stations along major highways — have been improved since Sandy to withstand the onslaught from future storms.
Some town officials, especially along the Jersey coast, have been working with experts to upgrade their master plans and weigh the options to make their communities more resilient.
And the Christie administration has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and low-interest loans to individual communities for storm water collection upgrades, sea walls and other projects.
For instance, at the sewerage authority, staff have rebuilt 560 motors and 171 pumps, strung 200 miles of temporary electric cables on utility poles, spent $2 million on temporary flood walls around key structures, and completed about 95 percent of needed rebuilding.
Now, commission officials are moving forward with about $500 million in long term projects to make the complex resilient to withstand future storms and sea level rise.
“We want this facility to be the model of resiliency in New Jersey,” said Gregory Tramontozzi, the agency’s executive director.
When unveiling some of those grants last year, Bob Martin, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the state has helped communities become more resilient “through a wide range of strategies that include construction of robust beach and dune systems, measures to protect critical water and wastewater infrastructure,” and “innovative strategies to restore degraded salt marshes to absorb storm surge.”
For example, the DEP has worked with local officials to design a proposed $230 million federally-funded system of flood walls along the Hudson River for Hoboken and parts of Weehawken and Jersey City.
Still, some experts say that the state government, while helping communities recover from Sandy, has not yet provided them with overarching, coordinated policies to address future sea level rise in a regional way.
Rutgers University scientists have estimated that New Jersey will likely experience a rise of a foot to 1.8 feet by 2050, and as much as 5 feet or more by 2100.
“Overall there hasn’t been a concerted effort on the part of the state yet to address a lot of those questions,” said David Kutner, planning manager at New Jersey Future, a nonprofit that advocates a balance between economic development and environmental protection. “Climate change is still not a topic widely discussed at the state level and no path has been set, no direction has been established. There’s not been a lot done to plan for the future.”
Despite that, individual agencies, nonprofits and municipalities have made some progress trying to plan for sea level rise and develop resiliency.
Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission
When Sandy struck, about 50 sewerage commission workers took refuge in a building at the highest elevation on the campus, which lies just 5,000 feet from Newark Bay. When they emerged after the storm, they were stunned at the devastation.
“We were completely engulfed by Sandy,” said Tramontozzi.
Pumps, motors and electrical cables were ruined, and about 200 million gallons of water filled the network of tunnels that housed key equipment.
“When I saw it I was amazed – I couldn’t believe it,” said John Rotolo, the facility’s chief engineer. “I thought, ‘How are we going to get rid of all this water?’”
The complex, which handles sewage from 1.5 million residents in 48 towns across Bergen, Passaic, Hudson and Essex counties, was knocked out of commission, and suffered $120 million in damage.
The agency received help from the Army Corps of Engineers to pump water out of the tunnels, and operated manually for several years after Sandy until all equipment was repaired or replaced.
Now, the commission has $500 million worth of projects planned to make the facility more resilient, taking into account how much the sea will rise over the next 60 years.
The commission plans to build a flood wall around the entire campus about 10 to 12 feet high. Since a wall would also hold rainwater in, the commission plans three pump stations and a storm water collection system.
They want to replace all the electric cables in the tunnels that had been damaged. And they want to install bulkheads in the tunnels so they can isolate any flooding.
Finally, they plan to build a reserve power plant on high ground.
The facility is the largest single user of electricity in New Jersey. When the treatment plant lost power during Sandy, it not only stopped treating the raw sewage coming to the plant from 48 municipalities in the area. It also couldn’t treat the five or six barges and 200 to 300 truckloads of sludge that get sent to the facility each day from New York City and communities as far south as Virginia.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency will cover 90 percent of the cost of these projects.
Gas stations on evacuation routes
Some of the more indelible images from Sandy were the snaking, miles-long lines of cars waiting to fill up at the few gas stations with power after the storm. Many stations still had gas – they just didn’t have power to pump it.
To address that, New Jersey made money available to gas stations near major arteries to buy generators. Under the voluntary program, 127 fuel stations have already received either fixed generators or a quick connect for a portable generator, said Laura Connolly, a spokeswoman with the state Office of Emergency Management.
The state has also obtained a supply of portable generators, stored at several sites around New Jersey, which can be sent to an area in need.
“We wanted this program to be mobile so we can be resilient anywhere in the state,” Connolly said. “Sandy is the freshest major storm in our minds so people tend to focus on coastal communities, but if a future storm causes more problems inland because of downed trees or power lines, we can take these generators and move them into position.”
The 22 gas stations along the Garden State Parkway, New Jersey Turnpike and Atlantic City Expressway also have backup power.
The state is also working to install 400 fixed generators at essential municipal buildings in more than 100 municipalities in every county. The generators will ensure that firehouses, police stations, and emergency management offices can stay in communication during storm-caused power failures, Connolly said. The generators should all be installed within the next three years.
As Sandy approached, two hospitals – Palisades Medical Center and Hoboken University Medical Center – were evacuated, along with 11 nursing homes. Overall, 39 acute care hospitals and nursing homes lost power. Even inland hospitals, such as Hackensack University Medical Center, lost power and had to rely on emergency generators.
Some hospitals saw such major flooding that even their emergency generators were compromised, so some hospitals have moved generators well above flood levels, said Diane Anderson, director of emergency preparedness with the New Jersey Hospital Association.
“Gasoline was an issue, which affected hospital staff’s ability to get back and forth to work,” Anderson said.
To address that, agreements were worked out with key gas stations to ensure that one lane of a gas station is devoted to first responders, including police, ambulances and hospital staff, Anderson said.
In addition, “transferring patient records did not go smoothly” as patients were evacuated to receiving hospitals. Electronic systems have since been enhanced and a system of records held in bright red folders was developed.
Sandy cut off power to 2 million of PSE&G’s 2.2 million customers in New Jersey.
Wind-blown trees pulled down many power lines, but more devastating was Sandy’s storm surge, which inundated 21 substations. Workers riding out the storm at a switching station in Newark watched worriedly as surge waters lapped at the base of their trailer door until they could be rescued by Newark firefighters.
To make the PSE&G distribution system more resilient, the company launched “Energy Strong,” a five-year, $1.2 billion series of projects that includes elevating substation equipment and making it possible to switch off substation breakers remotely from central offices so workers don’t have to be exposed to a storm surge.
PSE&G has also replaced 250 miles of cast iron gas pipes with plastic ones, so that 90,000 customers tied to those lines won’t lose gas service from floodwaters seeping into formerly leak-prone pipes.
So far, the company has eliminated, raised or rebuilt 18 substations or switching stations that had flooded, including one along the Hudson River in North Bergen and another along the Hackensack River in Hackensack.
One key substation in Woodbridge serves 90,000 residential and industrial customers, including the Buckeye Partners’ Perth Amboy oil refinery, the Goldman Sachs data center, Kinder Morgan and US Foods. Sandy pushed four feet of corrosive salt water from the Arthur Kill across the substation, inundating equipment, said John Latka, PSE&G’s senior vice president for electric and gas operations. Now, equipment is elevated on platforms 12 feet above the ground.
Because of the improvements, if Sandy hit today, about 380,000 fewer PSE&G customers would lose power, the company estimates. When all upgrades are finished over the next few years, that number would rise to 490,000 fewer Sandy-affected customers.
And those who did lose power would be restored more quickly, said company spokeswoman Brooke Houston.
But even with PSE&G’s substation equipment elevated, some big commercial customers could still lose power in the next big storm, since they have not yet invested to elevate and otherwise protect their equipment on the receiving end, Latka said.
As part of Energy Strong, PSE&G spent $84 million to reduce the number and length of outages to hospitals and other critical customers. About 260 hospitals and other key entities, such as police stations, that lost power during Sandy would now stay in service or have their energy restored more quickly, since they have been provided a third feed as a backup in case the main feed and initial backup go down, Latka said.
As with PSE&G, Sandy also affected nearly all of JCP&L’s 1.1 million customers, and many had multiple outages.
Since then, JCP&L spent $1.5 billion in infrastructure projects to make service more reliable.
JCP&L upgraded 20 substations by installing flood barriers and permanent walls, raising equipment and installing real-time monitoring devices, said spokesman Ronald Morano.
The company also developed an emergency response partnership with local IBEW chapters to supplement JCP&L crews with trained, local electrical workers during major storms.
Rutgers University and the Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve have been working with 45 communities along the Jersey coast over the past four years to help them plan for resiliency.
They have provided technical assistance, made local officials aware of their municipality’s risk from sea level rise, and showed them which of their vital facilities are at risk, said Lisa Auermuller, the reserve’s watershed coordinator.
The reserve staff showed maps of sea level projections and used a flood mapping website that showed the community’s vulnerability over time with each change in sea level.
The municipality officials conducted a resiliency survey, answering questions about the amount of risk and hazard mapping that they had considered in their town planning documents.
The reserve staff then took those surveys and produced a recommendation report.
“It was about starting a conversation, to sit down with municipal staff and have them ask themselves, “Have we really done these things, and should we?’” Auermuller said.
Some municipalities have rewritten or updated their master plans as a result. “The fact that these master plans now acknowledge sea level rise is a step in the right direction,” she said.
In a similar way, Rutgers has worked with 15 Monmouth County communities in a project called “NJ FRAMES.” The towns get help from scientists to understand sea level projections and the potential impact on their communities, and the costs and benefits of taking various resiliency projects.
But experts say there has to be a more regional approach spearheaded by the state. “We need to look at how we can effectively incorporate these projections into how communities are planning and how the state is planning, whether it be for rail lines or water supply or whatever,” said Jeanne Herb, associate director of the Environmental Analysis and Communications Group at Rutgers’ school of planning and public policy.
“We’ve heard from local decision makers loud and clear that they need consistency in the direction they are given from the state,” she said.
The state Department of Transportation has undertaken several resiliency projects since Sandy, said agency spokesman Stephen Schapiro. The largest was the reconstruction of nearly 13 miles of Route 35 destroyed by Sandy, which included improving the drainage system to withstand a 25-year storm. The old system could only handle a 2-year storm.
The new roadway is two feet thick and provides more stability with a 50-year lifespan. The new storm water drainage system has nine pump stations and treatment facilities to filter and purify the water before it flows into Barnegat Bay.
“As a normal course of action, NJDOT incorporates drainage improvements into our road construction projects,” Schapiro said. “However, making improvements to drainage systems can be challenging as the pipes are underneath highways and generally require completely tearing out a road to unearth, remove, and replace with larger pipes. This type of work is both extremely costly and intrusive to business and residents in the area, and is avoided unless absolutely necessary or part of a larger reconstruction project.”
The agency also improved the traffic light systems at 150 key road intersections in 14 counties so they can be run by gas-powered generators during a power failure. The $3 million upgrade was finished in June.
NJ Transit has several projects underway to make its rail lines more resilient. The NJ TRANSITGRID, to be located in Kearny, will be a 200-megawatt power facility connected to an electrical microgrid capable of supplying power during storms or when the commercial power grid is compromised.
The natural gas-burning facility will incorporate renewable energy, distributed generation, and other technologies to provide resilient power to key NJ Transit stations and other facilities.
The agency also plans to replace a 100-year-old drawbridge over the Raritan River for the North Jersey Coast Line that was out of service for more than three weeks after Sandy. Construction will take about five years.
The agency plans to fill Long Slip Canal adjacent to its Hoboken Terminal and built six new tracks on the reclaimed land, which is expected to provide rapid recovery of commuter rail service to and from Hoboken after major storm events.
Finally, the agency is planning a storage and inspection facility in New Brunswick and North Brunswick. The new facility, as well as an expansion of the nearby County Yard, will provide resilient storage capacity for hundreds of rail cars in an inland area not susceptible to flooding, the agency says.
Nearly 400 NJ Transit rail cars and locomotives were damaged during Sandy when they were left in low-lying, flood-prone rail yards in the Meadowlands and Hoboken. The agency's failure to move the rail equipment - as its plans had required - resulted in more than $120 million in damage.