When Hurricane Sandy hit New York and New Jersey it brought incredible storm surges and severely damaged areas along the water. Facilities at New York District’s Caven Point Marine Terminal in Jersey City, N.J., were destroyed by the 5-foot plus wall of water that tore through whatever was in its path.
"Once the siding was ripped apart, the wave action inside the building caused complete devastation," said Tony Lauria, Heavy Mobile Equipment Supervisor at Caven Point. Lauria has worked at Caven Point for 28 years. "This storm was one in a million, we’ve never seen this kind of tidal surge here—ever."
Despite the loss of their facilities, the personnel working out of Caven Point knew they still had important missions to support the New York and New Jersey Harbor, which is a critical piece of the region’s infrastructure and economy.
"Reopening the harbor is very important because it’s the lifeblood of commerce in the region," said John Tavolaro, New York District’s Deputy Chief of Operations. "The things we need on a daily basis, most of that comes by water. The fuel problems we had in the region right after the storm— a part of that was due to the fact that fuel barges could not transit through these channels until the port reopened."
Personnel at Caven Point also knew they would need to start cleanup and recovery efforts at Caven Point as soon as possible because the critical missions there would need to continue regardless of their facility’s status or condition.
SURVEYING TO OPEN THE PORT
The Port of New York and New Jersey was closed to marine traffic during and immediately after Hurricane Sandy. Not only did the storm wash large objects into the water, like heavy metal shipping containers and all manner of other debris, but it could have possibly altered the dimensions of navigation channels.
Because of those potential hazards, the U.S. Coast Guard could not reopen the harbor immediately following the storm until it was proven safe and worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to survey the harbor with hydrographic survey vessels and equipment to map safe routes for navigation as quickly as possible. District personnel worked with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as well as private industry to ensure the major navigation channels were clear of debris and shoaling. NOAA surveyors were also able to supplement Corps surveying capabilities by making sure equipment was available to replace whatever Corps equipment was lost in the storm.
After Sandy, New York District’s hydrographic survey vessels went to work right away, surveying for possible submerged obstructions and mapping the safest possible shipping lanes so the U.S. Coast Guard could mark routes with buoys so container ships and fuel tankers could make their way safely into port without any groundings or large spills. A major grounding or spill could have caused serious problems, especially considering the region was still picking up the pieces following the storm.
As always, data gathered by survey vessels must go to land-based crews to be interpreted and translated into charts and maps. With their normal facilities destroyed by the storm, land-based Survey Section personnel worked out of a Corps of Engineers Deployable Tactical Operations System’s Emergency Command and Control Vehicle rushed to Caven Point from the Corps’ Readiness Center in Mobile, Ala. SV Moritz, the largest of the Corps’ fleet of survey vessels, was used as floating office space for land-based survey personnel until the large command vehicle arrived via police escort.
After initial surveys of the major New York and New Jersey Harbor channels, the District’s survey vessels focused on supporting the massive debris removal mission that was ramping up and surveyed around the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island to ensure barges could safely bring the storm debris from there to upstate landfills for disposal.
DRIFT COLLECTION MISSION
New York District’s fleet of drift collection vessels regularly patrol in and around the New York and New Jersey Harbor collecting large amounts of drift and debris that are hazardous to navigation, and the days and weeks after Hurricane Sandy were no exception.
Before the storm hit, New York District’s larger survey vessels and its drift collection vessels headed north up the Hudson River, with their crews, to ride out the storm in hoped for calmer waters in Rockland County. The crews still had to battle tremendous swells for two days and nights in order for their vessels to make it through the slow moving superstorm.
Because of the contingency plan for the vessels to seek shelter before a major storm like Sandy, the crews and vessels all made it through the storm safely, and were immediately able to get to work cleaning out the channels in the harbor when they returned Tuesday morning.
"The ports had been filled with debris and obstructions so an immediate call for assistance came to us the following morning after the storm came through, and our crews jumped right into action," said Bill Lyness, Marine Superintendant at Caven Point.
He noted crews even began gathering debris as they headed back down river into the harbor before even being able to return to see the damage at Caven Point.
"It’s unprecedented the amount they’ve been bringing in," Lyness said. "I’ll give you an example. In the nearly three-week period between October 31st and today (November 19th), we’ve collected forty percent of our whole annual targeted goal."
That means that in the initial weeks following the storm the District’s drift collection vessels pulled approximately 212,000 cubic feet of drift and debris out of the harbor in less than three weeks following Hurricane Sandy when they estimate in a regular year they would normally pick up approximately 530,000 cubic feet.
Removing that much debris from the Harbor was also important because it allowed the Coast Guard to quickly and safely reopen the Harbor to marine traffic.
CAVEN POINT REBUILDING
With Caven Point’s facilities essentially destroyed, that meant the nerve center for the District’s floating plant operations, which includes the District’s working vessels, was knocked out of commission. That included dry dock, fueling stations and the maintenance shops.
The personnel knew they needed to continue to support the floating plant in order to keep the survey vessels and drift collection vessels working in the harbor to help reopen all of the Port of New York and New Jersey.
"Our top priority was that all of our floating plant was able to leave the facility on a day in and day out basis," Lauria said. "In order to do that, we (Caven Point) are their lifeblood. If they don’t have the facility here to get the fuel, the stores, the water, things like that, then their mission execution is not possible because they need these things to get underway."
Other than ensuring the District’s floating plant was operable, personnel at Caven Point had to begin the arduous task of cleaning up the mess and working toward rebuilding.
Personnel worked long hours in difficult conditions, including on weekends, to sift through the what was left, clear the debris and repair what could be repaired so they could continue whatever operations possible at the facility and continue to support the District’s missions on the water.
"We’ve been working pretty much from sun up to sun down and in the beginning we didn’t have lighting at all," Lauria said. "It was especially difficult and very dangerous. You couldn’t see where you were walking, it was slippery; there was slop and broken walls and cinderblocks. The damage was very severe."
U.S. Navy Seabees crews lined the blown out walls with wooden boards and rigged makeshift lighting inside the maintenance shop in order to get it back operational. In a matter of weeks, temporary modular facilities were installed at Caven Point for personnel to continue working out of - including the Survey Section so they would no longer need the Emergency Command and Control Vehicle.
Caven Point Marine Terminal is a long way from where it was before Sandy hit, but with temporary modular office facilities, a bit of structural repairs to the docks via U.S. Army dive team Soldiers from the 7th Sustainment Brigade out of Fort Eustis, Va., and contractor crews continuing to work toward restoring previous capabilities at the facility - New York District has been able to continue carrying out its missions supporting the New York and New Jersey Harbor.
"I was very much impressed by the resiliency of the people that work here in this facility," Tavolaro said. "Boats on the way back from riding out the storm were picking up drift because they knew that’s what they would have to do. The people that work here lost everything, their offices, all of their personal items. They had no place to work, yet they still showed up and they came here and said ‘what do we need to do to get back on our feet.’"