When Hurricane Sandy came ashore, it fell to the city’s leaders and the thousands of workers at their command to secure our coasts, to rescue those trapped by water and without power, to help the city rebuild. The Observer spent Monday and Tuesday talking with New York’s top public officials about Hurricane Sandy. These are their experiences in their own words.
Joe Lhota, chairman and CEO, Metropolitan Transportation Authority: I have an app on my iPad that monitors hurricanes on the East Coast. I have always lived on the water. I always watch the app. So when I first got involved in this—it was long before it even hit Jamaica—I knew when it started as a tropical storm, and a hurricane, and a tropical storm, and then a hurricane again.
Joe Bruno, commissioner, NYC Office of Emergency Management: We follow the weather very closely this time of year as it comes off the tip of Africa, or wherever it develops. This particular storm came out of the southwest of the Caribbean. At 11 a.m. on October 22, we saw a tropical depression. At that point it’s just a depression, and you don’t know much about it. By 6 p.m., it was upgraded already to a tropical storm called Sandy. It continued to strengthen during the next day, and we kept track of it as it moved across Jamaica.
On Oct. 24, we convened a coastal storm steering committee. That was made up of all the city and state agencies that would be part of any reaction to a coastal storm in New York City. When we do that, it means we see a potential threat to the city. On the 25th, we activated the situation room at OEM, we brought in the Police Department, the Fire Department, the city and state departments of health, the Department of Education, MTA, all the major agencies. We said, “We think this is going to be a big storm and we want to be ready.”
Josh Vlasto, communications director and senior adviser, Cuomo administration: We have a National Weather Service representative within our Homeland Security office up in Albany. When they send those emails saying “Potentially devastating storm coming in,” it puts everyone on notice.
Ray Kelly, commissioner, Police Department: It was a slow moving storm, so it was on everybody’s screen that this storm had a lot of potential but these things are uncertain. We prepared. I think we prepared as well for this storm as any other and quite frankly we had more time because it was a slow moving storm.
Cas Holloway, deputy mayor for operations: Either Wednesday night or Thursday morning, the decision wad made that we were going to mobilize all the materials and stand up to shelters. And making that decision then, you basically are over the threshold of mobilizing staff, getting facilities ready and doing all that. So at that point, I was already fully committed to the idea that something was going to happen regardless of what the storm did.
Sal Cassano, commissioner, Fire Department: We were getting all of our boats out, getting all of our pumps ready, getting all of our equipment to where we knew we would need them, areas which would be hit the hardest. We would redeploy our equipment to the most vulnerable areas in the A-Zone, such as Staten Island, such as the Rockaways. We kept extra resources in the tunnels, in case the bridges were cut off because of the wind. That way, if the island was isolated we would have enough equipment to handle the calls that we knew we would receive.
Veronica White, commissioner, Department of Parks and Recreation: We sand-bagged everything, every recreation center and field house, every parks facility, everything that could possibly flood. It was all hands on deck, with people working twelve-hour shifts around the clock. We tried to station people near their homes, so they could be safe and still get to work without having to rely on mass transit for the clean-up we knew was coming.
John Doherty, commissioner, Department of Sanitation: Our department faced this like we would fight a snowstorm. That was the kind of plan we followed for where to deploy, what to prepare for. The weather is different, but the job is the same.
Mr. Kelly: We’ve been in this business for a long time, and we learn from experience. I was a police commissioner in 1992, I guess, when we had that Nor’easter that did a lot of damage. We learned a lot from that storm, from all of these storms and disasters. It’s in the details. This administration put in these boats, they’re called Jon boats, which is a boat without a motor. They’re very shallow. You want to be able to get around on our streets. We had at least one per precinct that was reasonably close to water or had a history of water. Most people if you’re on land someplace, you don’t think of having boats.
Howard Glaser, director of state operations, Cuomo administration: Really this started a year ago, the day Hurricane Irene ended. Everything we learned from that storm, we realized the system needed a total overhaul.
Mr. Lhota: Given the experience I had a little over a year ago with Irene, everyone was aware of what and how long it took to get our equipment on safe ground. The Transit Authority needed 12 hours for the subways, the buses needed eight hours. With the Long Island Railroad, some of the equipment will snap if the wind gets above 40 miles per hour. That’s the last thing in the world you want.
John Rhea, chairman, New York City Housing Authority: Right up until the storm hit, we had cops out there knocking on doors, trying to get people out. We had buses from the DOE and the NYPD, school buses, prison buses, just pulling as many people out as we could. But at a certain point, you know, there’s nothing more you can do, and it actually becomes a danger to our people to be out there, so you just have to let them go and hope for the best. If only they had known better.
Janette Sadik-Khan, commissioner, NYC Department of Transportation: You had wind gusts hitting 101 miles per hour. We had not seen that before, and we didn’t want anyone stuck on the bridge. We knew we weren’t going to be able to get anybody onto the bridge to rescue them in those conditions. So we shut the eastern bridges, and we had crews overnight manning them. I mean, the heroism that went into the people who sat in those trucks all night keeping the bridges closed, and the people manning the ferries all night long as the surges were chest-high in the terminal.
Mr. Vlasto: We were looking at a statewide event, so we had to be prepared everywhere. One, you had the front coming down from the north, potentially hitting the front coming up from the south, so it had the potential to blanket the whole state. The second piece was our experience in Irene. Everyone said Irene was going to be a downstate event focused on the coastline.
Instead, it mostly missed New York City and it was disastrous upstate. We were lucky. We had deployed our national guardsmen in the Catskills and up through the north country so they could be out of harm’s way and deployed downstate quickly as needed. It turned out they were exactly where they needed to be. But we learned that these type of storms have to be treated as a statewide issue. The governor visited with security officials and met with them in all the different regions of the state: Nassau, Suffolk, New York City, the Catskills, Binghamton, Albany and up to the north country. We were treating this as something with the potential to be disastrous all over.
Mr. Holloway: When the Mayor did his press conference at 11:30 on Monday morning, we had looked at the surge, tracking actual surge values and where flooding was happening, and it was happening on the FDR. I turned to Janette Sadik-Khan, and said, “Look, look at the numbers, I mean, isn’t this basically what we saw at the height of Irene?” And that was at 11:30 in the morning. So at that point, that’s where I thought, “Well boy, I don’t know that we really know exactly how bad the inundation is going to be here.”
Mr. Cassano: On Monday we were here all day, planning. It was still relatively quiet when we got a report of a crane on a 90-story building that collapsed. That was pretty much the start of a very, very active and serious night. We had a four-alarm assignment for an incident that wasn’t even a fire, so we had a couple of hundred firefighters up there evacuating buildings, and now it’s starting to get windy, and now the activity is starting to pick up, and we have all these resources in Manhattan.
Robert LiMandri, commissioner, Department of Buildings: Certainly none of us—including contractors, anyone you talked to—ever expected the boom on that crane to snap back. For me, that was when we started to see the actual power of the storm. I think most commissioners would tell you that it really put everyone on edge. But then as the fire broke out in Breezy Point, the flood surge was coming up and we saw how bad it was past Zone A.
Mr. Cassano: And then we get a fire on City Island, another four-alarmer, and that took a lot of resources up in the Bronx, and that was not even because of the hurricane, it was just a fire, a fire in a restaurant.
Mr. Holloway: When the storm starts to get worse, there’s not much you can do. It’s like turning an aircraft carrier. What you can do is you can put people on the ground, and you can really encourage people to leave, and you can make sure that you have the capacity to accept them. It just shows that this is a truly life-and-death situation that people need to take it very seriously.
Ms. Sadik-Khan: I live downtown. When I saw the water go all the way up to Washington Street, which is two blocks from the river, and the wind was howling and glass was flying through the air, I had a pretty big ‘oh shit’ moment right then.
Mr. Lhota: I was on my way downtown to see Tom Prendergast, the head of New York City Transit, who was down there keeping an eye on the subway tunnels at the Batter. I was at NY1, I left NY1, and the West Side Highway was just gone. We headed down 14th street and we couldn’t get onto 11th Avenue. It was already at least a foot of water at 11th Avenue. Chelsea Piers will tell you they were completely underwater. So we did a U-Turn and then went down Washington Street and went down as far as we could and then the water was coming up over Washington Street. So the water had gone beyond, you know, had gone up one more block, and in fact the next morning we could see all the debris that was left there. So the surge pushed up and pushed over on both sides of the Hudson. And then it was looking for anywhere, anywhere to go.
Mr. Cassano: We had resources being deployed all over. Once the surge came, we got hit with a flurry of calls. The tide was rising and the wind was knocking down trees. In the middle of all that, we got this fire at Breezy Point, and we had no access to the fire, our apparatus couldn’t get down the street. So what the firefighters did was, they went in to evacuate the people out of buildings, get them out of there. We thought we’d take care of the life hazards first and then we would fight the fire.
That was happening in Breezy Point and we were getting a flurry of calls from people in Staten Island and certain parts of the Rockaway who were trapped in their houses, trapped in their attics. We had 30 small boats deployed all over the city and they were being used, our high-axle vehicles—like the brushfire and torpedo vehicles—we were getting them deployed to try and get these people out of their houses in the high waters. By the way, we were also getting those calls from Manhattan and the Battery. That was flooded and the power had gone out, and people were trapped. I don’t think anything has overwhelmed the city like that before.
Mr. Rhea: We were watching the television, we were seeing this movie play out in real life, in terms of water gushing in Battery Park, Lower Manhattan, the Rockaways, you name it. Seeing the level of surge, it’s rushing into the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, knowing that so many of our projects in these low-lying areas, knowing how much water we took on with Hurricane Irene, which was nothing close to this, realizing that most of our mechanicals are subterranean—it was clear we were going to have real problems.
Mr. Lhota: When I got downtown to meet Prendergast, we were looking at where we were, we both realized how deep the water was at South Ferry station. It didn’t surprise me when we found out later that the water was all way up to the ceiling. It was four feet above the ground that night. And then we walked over to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, where we ran into the governor totally by accident. I don’t know why I went over to the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel. I really don’t. We hadn’t been told about water rushing in, but we went over there, and boy, what I saw was extraordinary. White-water rapids, and a pace—you could have created hydro power.
I’ll use the words that the governor used. It was disorienting. It was. You heard it. You saw it. And you weren’t really sure you were hearing it and seeing it correctly. I never expected the Hudson River to do that.
Mr. Vlasto: The governor was standing with Lhota at the mouth of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and the water was rushing in so quickly that the sound was deafening. I think that for him, that was the moment—where the water was that night, when you’re down there, standing at the tunnel, there’s so much water that you can’t hear—I think the governor would say that was the “We Got a Problem” moment.
Mr. Glaeser: It was a sound you never heard before in Lower Manhattan, a rushing river. And then we went over to the World Trade Center and we saw Niagara Falls was pouring into the site. This was no ordinary storm.
Mr. Cassano: We started to get into the buildings that were actually flooded to make some searches. We were still getting a lot of calls from people who were trying to get out of their homes. So we had to use the boats again the next morning. The challenge was to actually assess the damage. We had firehouses that we had to evacuate in the Rockaways and Coney Island, along with a number of EMS stations. We had streets blocked, we had streets still flooded—it was a very difficult operation. It was a mess, and it still is.
Mr. LiMandri: We use a methodology that is used in earthquake recoveries called ATC-45—it’s modified because it’s not an earthquake, but all the principles are the same. The first path is to do a windshield: to sweep the neighborhoods and try to identify how hard-hit each neighborhood is. With the areas that are hard-hit, we go block by block and then identify those buildings that have some damage. The categories start with green, meaning fine, we don’t see any exterior degradation of the façade or foundations. They may have had water damage, but we don’t think it is significant. The second is yellow for minor structural damage, major water infiltration that we know could be a concern for the foundation. The third is red, and we found this in many communities in Rockaway and Staten Island, where the building foundation had been compromised to the point where it could collapse or there was significant damage to the structure.
We’ve tagged 16,000 buildings so far, going back to last Wednesday. We expect to be done by Sunday. There were 400 red buildings so far, but far more are in worse shape. You may have a green building that has been destroyed inside. Structurally, it’s sound, that is our first concern, because it is a matter of safety, but everything else is ruined.
Mr. Doherty: There are some areas, particularly in Rockaway and parts of Staten Island, where you had structural damage to buildings and debris came out into the streets from them. Furniture, wall boards, insulation, tile, just about anything that people would have in their basements or on their first floors. It was just piling up everywhere. You’d spend the day, think you’d finally cleaned up the street and you could mark it off your list, and you come back the next day and it’s full again.
Mr. Vlasto: We were going downtown, the day after the storm, to look around. It was right after or shortly after the streetlights went out, and I was driving down Second Avenue with no streetlights. The sun was just rising. It just sort of sunk in. There were no cops on the street directing , no crosswalk lights to tell people when to stop and go. No lights to block people crossing avenues. It was scary. That was really scary. Because you never knew when you were going to hit people, when you were going to get T-boned. Or if somebody was going to jump out into the street. That was really scary. It’s almost better to be driving in than when it’s completely open.
Mr. Lhota: The MTA is a very complex organization. You’ve got the bridge-and-tunnel guys, they had two tunnels down. Not only is the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel out, which didn’t surprise me, but we had water in the Queens-Midtown tunnel. We’ve never had water in the Queens-Midtown tunnel before—ever. So that was a surprising occurrence. I always knew that the LIRR and Metro-North would have trees down all over the place, but this was hard to believe. And then there was the subway system, which I knew was going to have some water. The reality is that the preparatory work that the Transit Authority did helped in many cases.
Nobody’s ever asked why the 4/5 tunnel, the Drummond Tunnel—why did it come back so fast? Bowling Green station is a little higher, and so is Brooklyn where the train comes out. But we also made sure to seal up as much as we could. We moved the trains out and everything was ready to go. More importantly, everyone was ready to go, and they worked nonstop to dig us out, pump us out and get us back up and running. A week ago, when I saw all that water rushing in downtown, I never would have imagined we would be up and running again like this so quickly. Not in that moment, at least.
Mr. Glaser: Coming in with the National Guard on Thursday, carrying food and water with the governor down in Lower Manhattan—we were at the Lexington Avenue Armory with the Food Bank of New York—you don’t expect to be doing that in Manhattan. The power was still off. It was just a shift in our expectations of what government is. Just every day, on a regular basis, there were things like that happening every day. Just the sight of National Guard troops in Manhattan. They were on a humanitarian mission, you know, but it makes you realize what a thin thread it can be any time, keeping a society going.
Ms. White: We walked every street in every community board, the entire city, looking for downed trees and other damage. We inspected every park and playground, approximately 1700 of them, and made certain they were safe to open to the public. Now we have about 83 percent open. We’ve had over 3,000 volunteers come out to help us clean up. And we have hundreds of Parks people in the field documenting everything that has occurred to submit to FEMA so we get back every penny New York is entitled to for its parks.
Mr. Lhota: We heard that a 40-foot boat ended up across the tracks outside the Ossining station. The first thing everyone wants to do is get a picture: “We gotta see this.” So we got a picture. And then Howard Permut, the president of Metro-North, and Robert Lieblong, the executive vice president who operates the railroad every day, without blinking an eye they found a piece of machinery in our shop that could lift up a boat. They went to a boatyard and bought the racks and put the boat underneath and lifted it up. They used a train crane to move a boat. It’s emblematic of how anything could possibly happen. They just said, “Okay, let’s deal with it.” And they did.
Mr. Cassano: I spent this weekend on Staten Island helping out a couple of different command centers, and this weekend is when it really hit me to the core, because my sister lives in the area. When I was helping out, I just took a ride down to make sure that she was okay, and they were just emptying the house out. It had been totally flooded. All her possessions were on the sidewalk. And going down blocks and blocks and seeing the same thing in other people’s homes, it really hit home how bad this was.
Mr. Vlasto: I think it was Lyndenhurst—this will stick with me—we were walking, and we went to a street and into a house. The governor walks in a house, and this old lady was standing outside the house crying. She had a picture in her hand and she was crying, and she said, “This is my grandson.” She said, “I’m so happy I found this picture.” She said, “I found it right here.” And we couldn’t figure it out. And then she said, “But I live four houses down.” That was sad. I don’t have any happy moments yet. I’m waiting.
Mr. Lhota: The thing that amazed me is that when we put together maps of what was together in the system, it was substantive. And then there was the desire to put together the bus bridge, because we realized we had a gap in service between Brooklyn and Manhattan, and Queens and Manhattan with the 7 train, so very quickly Tom Prendergast and his team, along with Darryl Irick on the MTA Bus, put together the bus bridge.
Ms. Sadik-Khan: You had issues everywhere, you had no subways coming across from Brooklyn to Manhattan, so we needed to set up a new surface subway system. We worked with the MTA—we’d set up the bridges, so why not some bus bridges?—and the NYPD got their people out there to enforce that.
Mr. Lhota: I drove by it the first day, but the was so horrendous I just wanted to get into the city. But what I saw was a lot of people gathered around. New Yorkers don’t do things in a line. People were all jockeying around, seeing who could get on the bus first. But we learned our lesson. That was Thursday morning, and by Friday morning, we took the Disney approach—we created pathways, allowing people to see that they were moving through the pathways. On Friday morning we were putting 3,700 people an hour on buses, three buses loading at a time, dedicated lanes from the city, police escorts from the city. And once they got on the buses, they were at 42nd Street in 20 minutes. A world of difference from what happened on Thursday. First time through, it was really important to see what we could learn, how could we make it better, and we made it better.
Ms. Sadik-Khan: On Wednesday, when everybody came in to drive, it was just one big parking lot. So looking at that, you needed to do something. I wanted to go with the HOV3, and of course that only works if you have the Police Department doing the enforcement. And they were really terrific—they did an amazing job. I can’t say enough for Ray Kelly’s team, it was really extraordinary what they did.
Mr. Kelly: I’m going out again tonight, and I know I will ask people, “How are cops treating you?” And it will probably be very positive, because it’s been very positive. I haven’t had a negative comment. And people aren’t afraid to give me a negative comment.
Mr. Doherty: We have had a number of sanitation workers, particularly out in Rockaway and some areas in Staten Island, who have either lost their homes completely or had a lot of water damage. The ones that I have talked to, they are coming to work, they have been coming in. And I remember earlier in the storm, I was talking to this gentleman out in Rockaway, and he said “I’m here to help my neighbors. Yes, I had damage to my house, but I’m here to help.” The morale has been outstanding by the men and women of the department. They are looking for work to do sometimes. If I’m not moving them quickly enough, they are asking me, “Where can we work, where can we work?” Relax, we are going to get you there.
Mr. Kelly: Cancelling the marathon is something I’m going to remember. It was something that we were prepared to do, and all of a sudden, it was cancelled. But probably more significant for me was the sight of the area that was burned in Breezy Point. I went there, the ground was still smoldering, and all you see is an open field where the houses had burned down. But then I looked out at the end of the field, and I could see a person, and the person was very, very small. The breadth of the damage, it didn’t really hit me until I saw the size of that person so far away. It’s something that you see in other parts of the world. It’s not something that you see on the East Coast of the United States.
Mr. Vlasto: You’re seeing idleness, and kids who are so lonely and tired and exhausted, so the governor said, you know, lets get something for kids. Give them some board games, something to make them smile. That’s where he came up with the idea to ask Walmart for some toys. They had volunteered to help, they had been donating water, so we just said, how about some toys for the kids?
Mr. Bruno: Key people, the president and everyone on down, have reached out to us. Every major official came through here, and they’ve been following up on it. We have the National Guard here. We have Department of Defense forces—they’re helping a lot with the fuel. We got the Army Corps of Engineers, they’ve been a huge partner for us and totally dedicated to getting New York City back up and running. So after the anxiety about whether help was going to come—it is a good feeling when you see this stuff.
Mr. Holloway: I was in the Rockaways this morning and this recovery, we’re going to be dedicating an absolutely enormous amount of resources to getting cleaned up and helping as many people get back into their homes as quickly as possible. We have another storm coming, you know, and now we have to brace for that, too. In Irene we responded, the storm broke up, and everybody was able to get back to business as usual pretty quickly. Here, there are certain areas in the city where people’s lives have truly been turned upside down. And we are going to be out there for as long as it takes to get it right side up.
Mr. Rhea: There were many people, through no fault of their own, who bet against Mother Nature, and to see the faces of those who were impacted because they were still in their residences and didn’t evacuate, or those who didn’t think they needed to evacuate because they were outside of the zone, that was hard. They were saying, “We really need help to get basic necessities and power and heat and hot water restored.” And asking very directly and emotionally for that assistance.
Then there’s the flip-side of that, which is being able to fix a problem—to have someone say to you, “Thank you for being able to get that done as fast as you were able to.” So for every person who is still without heat and water, there is somebody who has had it restored. For every person who is without electricity there are four times that number who have had it restored. The people who ask for help, and the appreciation when we do our jobs and deliver on behalf of these families, that is something I will remember.
Mr. Vlasto: Seeing the subways fill up, I think, was a very jarring sight for the governor. He says that it’s not just that, it’s the frequency: now we have dealt with this twice in two years. How many times do we have to deal with this again before we make substantial change? It’s almost like, “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.” And now we’ve just been fooled again.
Mr. Lhota: I walked into a bar on Saturday night, and even though I’m somewhat of a public figure, I’ve always enjoyed my anonymity. When I was budget director for the city and when I was deputy mayor, I didn’t even unlist my phone number. On Saturday, I walked into a bar, and people wanted to buy me a drink. That’s something that’s going to stay with me, because I was very surprised. By the way, that was my first drink after that whole week. I had wine.