NEW YORK – Driving along the Staten Island Expressway and over the Verrazano Bridge into Brooklyn, I would have never known that a major disaster had occurred to the largest city in the United States.
I saw blue skies, and in the distance, the skyline of Manhattan with the sunlight glistening off the glass-clad skyscrapers like it would on any typical day. But, as I would quickly find out first-hand, nothing was typical in Lower Manhattan, or in many parts of the tri-state area.
Navigating the streets of New York was an interesting endeavor: private cleanup crews, working to get many of the buildings in the city operative, clogged the sides of each road; large pumps roared as they work to remove water at manholes, parking garages, underpasses, tunnels and subway stations, all inundated by Sandy’s surge of saltwater; taxis meandered through the streets and tour busses packed with people taking pictures of the recovery efforts rolled on by.
Even people on foot were caught up in the allurement of all the action, snapping photos and posing next to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Emergency Command and Control Vehicles parked across the street from the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Shrine.
Corps employees and officers, including Norfolk District’s Capt. Antonio Pazos, who was one of the first responders on the ground after the storm, were swiftly working away, answering questions and trying devise solutions to tackle the issues of how exactly do you expediently remove millions-of-gallons of water from the crevasses’ of the Big Apple.
Venturing into the South Ferry subway station, the smell of fuel-laden water filled the air. It was muggy, damp and dark. I never could imagine walking down one flight of stairs, through now-empty turnstiles, to the landing above the tracks, yet there were no tracks; just the very top of a water filled tunnel. Engineers told me if I had come down to the same spot 24 hours earlier, I would have been underwater.
All around the Battery Park area of the city, the Corps of Engineers, Metropolitan Transit Authority, contractors and crews continued to bring new pumps online in an effort to remove the water from the city’s transportation systems as quickly as possible. At one point in time this meant removing nearly 116,000 gallons per minute.
Across the New York harbor, in Hoboken and Jersey City, NJ, the damages were extensive. The New York District’s Caven Point Marine Terminal wore the scars of Sandy’s 13-foot storm surge.
The bottom portions of the buildings were ripped away and office equipment -- filing cabinets, chairs and desks -- lay in piles of rubble. Boats and machinery tossed around. Even an office phone sat on the ground, still leaking water out of its keypad days after the storm had passed.
Hoboken’s Lackawanna station -- an ornate subway, Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) train and ferry station -- sat dormant. No trains or ferries were running, no passengers scurried around the terminal. Power here was lost in the storm and the docks damaged. The Corps, New Jersey Transit officials and contractors worked to bring in generator power to restore the vital transportation link.
FEMA generators are being staged in Lakehurst, NJ, and then trucked out to areas that needed them most; nursing homes, hospitals, police and fire stations. The needs for the area in terms of power are great, as thousands remain in the dark and many in low-income properties, particularly in Queens, are feeling the brunt of the aftermath with no power, no heat and no place to go.
The Corps continues to assess the situation, and even Norfolk District Commander Col. Paul Olsen is on the ground, trying to work through the monumental task of bringing old buildings that had their junction boxes, transformers and wires inundated by saltwater, back online through generator power.
All the while, residents look on in anticipation of having their lights and, more importantly, their heat restored. Looking at the situation, I could see there wasn’t a quick fix, and it was going to take real engineering intuition to tackle.
I traveled west of New York City, where the skyscrapers melted away to coastal plains and eventually rolling hills. Power was sporadic, gas availability -- even worse.
In Glen Gardens, NJ, one of the first debris removal missions was underway. Crews were cutting fallen trees and branches away from power lines so power crews could come in and restore power.
The residents were happy to see movement in their neighborhood. One resident came out with bottles of energy drink and offered them to us, saying “Thank you, I am just happy to see people come out this far, I thought we would be one of the last areas to receive anything.”
Throughout my travels in the affected region, I came across a team that was trying everything in their power to help, including Norfolk District employees, Katy Battista and Walter Kloth, at the emergency operations center (EOC). They are slamming out geographic information system (GIS) products to assist in the planning efforts. Maj. Kevin Siegrist is working the power mission from the emergency operations center, and I know many others are continuing to show up to support the efforts.
One thing I learned throughout my travels is the mission to restore the area will not be done tomorrow. No, this will be a long arduous path to recovery for many; a path that many of us will be able to assist them achieve.
As I left New York in the middle of a nor’easter I knew that the area was getting another punch to the gut from Mother Nature, but I also know that with the combined efforts of the local, state and federal entities on the ground, that recovery is possible.