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North Jersey ports rebounded from Sandy, but agency preparing for next storm

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When Hurricane Sandy whipped through the state, it left $2 billion in damage to properties of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, from its PATH stations to electrical and mechanical systems at the World Trade Center site.

But it was a less devastating story at the ports. A cruise ship docked at one of the terminals just five days after the storm him; four days later, each of the agency’s major terminals were back up and running.

That rapid bounce back to business almost as usual was vital, given the timing of the storm — and astonishing, given the level of damage, said Anne Strauss-Wieder, a transportation consultant based in Westfield who is studying port disruptions and business continuity.

“Sandy hit during the peak week when warehouses and distribution centers receive the goods in preparation for the big push-out week at Thanksgiving,” Strauss-Wieder said.  “Nobody went hungry. Supplies got in, and I think all the stores were able to carry out their Black Friday sales.”

It was like an adrenaline rush masking the pain of an injury. Once port operations were back to normal, the extent of the damage had to be assessed. Waterlogged containers had toppled to the ground, their contents ruined. Power to the cranes and other operating equipment had been knocked out. And dozens of imported cars were destroyed by fire and water. Now, as the authority looks ahead at the possibility of future storms hitting the region, it is analyzing how its ports can be better protected.

In May, the Port Authority’s board of commissioners granted the authority $59 million, the most recent round of funding the board has awarded, with about $32 million earmarked for airports, tunnels, bridges and ports.

The broad mandate for those funds is to finance recovery and storm mitigation projects, said agency spokesman Steve Coleman. Specific projects have yet to be determined, but the biggest concern is power.

“One of the key lessons that was learned was that there needs to be a way to protect some of the critical infrastructure, because without power at the terminals, they can’t operate,” Coleman said.
Strauss-Wieder agreed the power problem is huge.

“We have electric cranes. You can’t run the cranes without some form of power,” she said, also pointing out the industry’s reliance on computer-based systems.
The authority also is considering above-ground parking structures to better protect the 600,000 to 700,000 vehicles that are shipped into its ports every year, especially as so many were demolished in the storm, Coleman said.

That kind of project is likely a long-term goal for the agency. Strauss-Wieder said the current post-disaster period is “medium-term,” when operations are still being stabilized. The ports’ short-term job was to get back up and running, but it has yet to enter the long-term phase, when big, permanent changes can be made.

“It was nice to see the resiliency of our supply chain,” she said. “The unfortunate thing about natural disasters is you know there’s going to be a next time.”

E-mail to:  maryj@njbiz.com
On Twitter:  @mjohns422

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