- THE MAGAZINE
Though the headlines a year later had switched to covering political storms, the lessons of Hurricane Sandy were still fresh in the minds of many port authorities and the victims who were still working on recovery.
An adverse weather event anywhere on the globe has the potential to disrupt the supply chain operations of manufacturers and retailers. So, too, can the uncertainty that surrounds a developing threat.
When Hurricane Sandy hit the Eastern Seaboard in October 2012, it caused a legendary disruption in the supply chain in the middle of one of the largest consumer markets in the world.
Ports are critical to local, regional and national economies, and those ports in the mid-Atlantic region faced days of uncertainty as to what path the developing storm would take and whether they would be directly and severely impacted.
“Ports need to be operating,” asserts Joe Harris, media relations manager for Port of Virginia.
Sandy’s path took it directly over New York and New Jersey. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) suffered major damage (it was shuttered for slightly more than a week). Other ports in the region suffered minimal or no disruptions.
However, officials at all ports have planned for the next storm. Emergency plans were reviewed, revised and made ready for implementation following Sandy. Everyone agrees that it is not a matter of if, but when the next major storm occurs.
“In our mind, the next storm is not too far away,” insists Sam Sleiman, director of capital programs and environmental affairs for Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport), operator of Port of Boston.
Little Protection to be Found
PANYNJ has had a hurricane plan in place for years. But no amount of planning could have anticipated what happened on Oct. 29, 2012, says Dennis Lombardi, deputy director, port commerce.
Sandy hit the New York-New Jersey coastline at high tide, resulting in a nearly 14-foot surge of water that flooded everything on or near the waterfront.
Several days before Sandy was expected to make landfall, PANYNJ officials employed the hurricane plan, advising major tenants to make preparations, move as much equipment to higher ground as possible and secure equipment (such as cranes) that could not be moved. Port vehicles and equipment were moved to higher ground as well.
But “it was too little to protect us from an historic storm surge,” Lombardi acknowledges. “We would have been OK if we would have gotten some minimal flooding, but we couldn’t handle 4 or 5 feet of water.”
Fortunately, no injuries or fatalities occurred at the port as a result of Sandy.
Once the brunt of the storm passed, officials saw cargo floating in the water, vehicles submerged, debris in the harbor and containers thrown in the channel or onto roadways.
“It was just a mess,” Lombardi emphasizes.
All of the damage from Sandy was the result of salt water infiltration; there was no structural damage.
While some issues impeded recovery efforts, most PANYNJ terminals were back in operation and major commercial activity resumed on Nov. 6.
A Direct Hit Avoided
Officials from other ports in the mid-Atlantic region consider themselves fortunate that they were not in the direct path of the storm. Damage to the ports of Virginia, Boston and Baltimore was minimal.
“We didn’t have major damage or significant flooding to our facilities,” says Sleiman, adding most damage was caused by high winds.
Port of Virginia was closed for one day while crews searched the waterway for any Sandy-related damage. Once reopened, the port received ships that were originally destined for PANYNJ.
“We all knew that New York-New Jersey was going to get hammered, although no one knew how bad and prolonged,” Harris cautions. “The ripple effect was cargo diverted to Virginia. We were able to handle it.”
Although Sandy did not strike Port of Baltimore, “we were as prepared as one can be leading up to the storm,” emphasizes Barbara McMahon, manager, Safety Management and Environmental Initiatives Office for Maryland Port Administration. That’s because other storms have impacted the port in recent years.
“We have a weather preparedness disaster plan, and we feel we are able to implement the plan effectively,” she maintains.
Preparations begin about 72 hours in advance of a storm making landfall. If it becomes likely that the storm will hit the region, Port of Baltimore begins to secure cranes and buildings, ensure containers are positioned in such a way they won’t be blown over by strong winds, and makes safe vessels dockside or sends them out to sea. Potential hazards that could cause damage are cleared and a skeleton crew remains on site.
In the wake of Sandy, Port of Baltimore is working with the city of Baltimore, which is working on its own disaster preparedness and planning project. Because of its large role in the region, the port is helping the city plan and prepare for future weather events, McMahon says.
Preparing for Hurricane Sandy was not out of the ordinary for Massport personnel.
“We get snowstorms all of the time,” Sleiman points out. “We prepare for these kinds of events very well. Our operational people work with our tenants — shippers and carriers — and we had twice-daily briefings [during Sandy].”
That does not mean lessons are not learned going forward.
In Sandy’s wake, Massport officials wanted to examine Port of Boston’s preparedness in the event that the storm had taken a 45-degree turn and impacted the region similarly to how it impacted New York-New Jersey.
“What happened in New York made a lot of people wake up,” Sleiman emphasizes. “They talk about storm surge, but they don’t believe it will get to the level it did during Sandy. The damage in New York-New Jersey opened the eyes for a lot of people to say, ‘You know what, this can happen to us, and we need to plan for it.’”
This line of thinking prompted Massport to create a resiliency plan to get back to normal operations as quickly as possible after an adverse weather event.
“We looked at critical infrastructure at the seaport and [Logan International Airport] and what areas are vulnerable to flooding in the event of similar storm,” Sleiman notes. “We have to first understand the potential scenarios before adopting long-term plans.”
As a result of Sandy, Massport officials are reviewing ongoing projects in the design and construction phases to make sure flood damage is minimized in new terminals and other buildings. That means a change of philosophy in how terminals are built, according to Sleiman, including moving critical mechanical and electrical infrastructure from the ground floor to higher floors.
“To protect future construction, we’re trying to design these infrastructures out of harm’s way to allow us to get back to operations as quickly as possible after a storm hits,” Sleiman insists.
PANYNJ has also raised equipment to a reasonable height above a potential flood line for protection in emergency situations. For example, controls at the pump house, which is responsible for water distribution at the ports of Newark and Elizabeth, New Jersey, have been raised from 2 to 5 feet off the ground. Controls can also be relocated to higher ground, if necessary.
Recovery efforts at PANYNJ were hampered by a lack of power and fuel.
“One thing we learned from Sandy was we needed traffic control to reopen the port once debris was cleared off the roadways,” Lombardi stresses. “We had no power, so no traffic lights. It would have been chaos to allow the general public into the port before the traffic lights were working again. We were also limited to allowing people into the port during daylight because of the lack of power.”
To help prevent this in the future, the port has purchased additional power generators.
“Now, generators will be brought in for traffic control, allowing us to begin wholesale recovery operations quicker,” Lombardi adds.
Another lesson: Fuel is critical once a storm passes. Prior to Sandy, the port topped off its fuel stations. As Lombardi notes, “We did all the right things.”
But Sandy affected the entire New York City metropolitan area, including the port’s fuel suppliers. Emergency fuel was hard to come by. Since Sandy, the port has entered into agreements with several companies located further inland, outside the metropolitan area, for an emergency supply, Lombardi points out.
Communication “Absolutely Essential”
PANYNJ port officials instituted its incident command structure and held multiple conference calls on a daily basis, both before and after the storm, to provide the most up-to-date information and status of the port.
“We spent 80 percent of our time communicating and sharing information,” Lombardi notes. “It was one of the most important things we did.
“We’ve modified our plans for the next storm and have spelled everything out,” he adds. “We’ve put down on paper the lessons we learned from Sandy.”
At Port of Virginia, technology was instrumental in communications, including the use of its webpage, blog, Facebook, Twitter and direct emails, to keep its stakeholders informed of the most relevant and current information. While the communication was good during Sandy, Harris believes it could be better the next time.
“There were still gaps,” he points out. “We told [stakeholders] that they had to plan; maybe we, as an industry, need to help them plan.”
Thinking ahead to the next super storm, Port of Virginia officials believe an industry-wide strategy is needed.
While Sandy was devastating, its significant impact was felt in a narrow confine of the Atlantic Coast. Harris points to the 1962 Ash Wednesday storm that impacted an area ranging from the Mid-Atlantic States to New England. The storm lasted from March 6 to 8 (March 7 was Ash Wednesday) and lingered through five high tides. It killed 40 people, injured more than 1,000 and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage in six states. Several East Coast ports were adversely affected.
“If we had an incident [such as the Ash Wednesday Storm] again, we would need a fallback position,” Harris urges.
How do you start the conversation?
“We’ve talked about having a conference, pulling in ports, ocean carriers and logistics companies,” Harris points out. “We need to begin talking. We don’t have to hammer out a plan immediately, but people are mistaken if they believe Sandy was a one-off event.”
When the next storm hits, each piece of the supply chain has to do what is essential to keep its area secure and safe, Baltimore’s McMahon says. Each link has to define critical functions and how to get those functions back in operation as soon as possible once the storm passes.
“The key is to maintain a good preparedness plan and always refine it,” she believes.