It was a tense week for the North Atlantic Division in the lead up to Hurricane Sandy’s landfall in the Northeast. By Oct. 26, 2012, based upon the National Hurricane Center’s forecast, it was clear the storm would make landfall somewhere along the New York or New Jersey coastline. NAD was on high alert and preparing with partner agencies at all levels of government.
When a tropical wave formed Oct. 22 in the Caribbean Sea, forecasters immediately recognized it was rapidly growing in strength. Within hours it was upgraded to a tropical storm, and Sandy became the eighteenth named storm of the 2012 hurricane season. Two days later it grew to a Category 1 hurricane, making landfall in Jamaica, then reaching its peak intensity as a Category 3 as it made its way over Cuba.
As it moved northward, it weakened to a Category 1 hurricane while over the Atlantic Ocean, soon pushing left, where it would eventually make landfall on Oct. 29 as a post-tropical cyclone at Brigantine, New Jersey. Before the landfall, NAD’s New York District worked tirelessly to help City and State partners make informed decisions on whether and where to evacuate, ultimately proving necessary and prescient.
When the storm hit the Northeast, it’s wind diameter was more than 1,000 miles long, packing a punch that would deliver estimated damages of $65 billion, according to the National Hurricane Center. In the early part of the response, much of the work NAD and USACE undertook through Federal Emergency Management Agency mission assignments concerned the herculean task of debris removal from affected communities. By Nov. 15 the FEMA task orders for debris removal totaled $92 million.
Additionally, as part of the unified federal response, USACE was called upon to unwater 475 million gallons of salt water from flooded critical infrastructure in the New York City metro area, install more than 200 generators to critical facilities such as hospitals and police stations; refurbish 115 transitional housing units; provide more than 9 million liters of bottled water; and assist the U.S. Coast Guard in returning affected ports to operation.
Col. John P. Lloyd, NAD’s current commander and division engineer, at the time was serving as the commander of the Army’s 19th Engineer Battalion. He and members of the battalion deployed primarily to assist with debris removal and unwatering.
“For me, taking a direct role in the Hurricane Sandy recovery and response is in the top five best experiences of my thirty-plus years in the Army,” said Lloyd. “We really saw the best qualities of American society. So many people willing to help their neighbors in a time of need, and there was such appreciation from the community for USACE being on the ground. We knew we were making a tangible impact for those affected, and I’m extremely proud of the work we did there.”
By January, Congress passed Public Law 113-2, the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013. PL 113-2 authorized and funded USACE with more than $5 billion to analyze, restore and construct federal projects spanning the entire 31,000-mile Atlantic Coast. $4.56 billion of that total was appropriated specifically to NAD.
With funding in place, NAD began to plan and execute a portfolio that would eventually grow to 155 projects stretching from Virginia to New England. Those projects were grouped into four program areas: Operations and Maintenance; Flood Control and Coastal Emergencies; Authorized but Unconstructed; and Ongoing Studies.
The Hurricane Sandy Coastal Projects Performance Evaluation Study was a component of PL 113-2 that assessed the performance of 75 constructed coastal storm risk management projects in NAD. Its purpose was to determine the effectiveness of the project with respect to both the engineering performance and the projects’ ability to provide safety, economic benefits, and to recommend improvements as necessary. The evaluation highlighted institutional and other barriers to providing comprehensive risk management to affected coastal areas.
PL 113-2 also provided $20 million for the purposes of conducting “a comprehensive study to address the flood risks of vulnerable coastal populations in areas that were affected by Hurricane Sandy within the boundaries of the North Atlantic Division,” resulting in the North Atlantic Coast Comprehensive Study.
“I’ve lived in this area for most of my life, so seeing the devastation Sandy caused was heartbreaking,” said Joe Forcina, NAD Civil Works Integration Division chief and lead for NAD’s Hurricane Sandy Recovery Program. “When PL 113-2 was passed, we had a monumental task in front of us, but nevertheless rose to the challenge. The professionals I have worked with over the years on these projects here at USACE, in state and local government, and on contracting teams are the best in the business. I’m so grateful for the opportunity we have had to give back to these communities.”
NAD’s Flood Control and Coastal Emergencies work consisted of emergency repair and restoration of 25 coastal storm risk management projects, 24 of which were completed by December 2014, with the last in October 2015. All told, this was USACE’s largest emergency repair and restoration effort in its history—the projects received 26 million cubic yards of sand.
By 2018, USACE completed the last of its Operations and Maintenance projects, which required repairs to 86 USACE-built-and-maintained structures including breakwaters, storm surge barriers, jetties, bulkheads, and revetments, as well as clearing shoaling from navigation channels that hindered waterway access.
Sandy-related Authorized but Unconstructed projects primarily involve constructing engineered dune and berm systems to manage coastal storm risk to infrastructure located behind beaches, while others require the repair or construction of structures such as seawalls, tide gates, floodwalls, levees, and pump stations.
Of the 19 ABU projects authorized, 12 have been constructed, with the remaining in various phases of design and construction. Projects currently under construction include Montauk Point and Fire Island to Montauk Point in New York and Minish Park, Port Monmouth, and Union Beach in New Jersey.
Hurricane Sandy left not simply a legacy of destruction, but ultimately many opportunities to rethink approaches to coastal storm risk management and to underscore it is a shared responsibility of all levels of government. Despite the tragedy of the storm, USACE and partner agencies came away with significant lessons learned that have impacted for the better how the U.S. prepares for and manages risk against future coastal storm events, compounded with the effects of climate change and sea level rise.
“We’ve made an incredible amount of progress in the past ten years, and we continue to demonstrate our commitments to the communities served by our projects, just as we did from the earliest days of this disaster,” said Forcina. “NAD and its non-federal partners are working diligently to complete the remaining projects, helping to ensure the area’s coastal resiliency for years to come.”