By Karen Zautyk
You can’t say they weren’t warned.
Back in 2011, NJ Transit hired a Boonton company called First Environment Inc. to do an in-depth study on the effects that climate change and weather-related events might pose to the agency’s infrastructure and equipment over the next two decades.
Among the findings in the $45,990 report released last June: The Meadowlands Maintenance Complex, generically called the Kearny railyards, was situated in a “storm surge” area. As were the railyards in Hoboken.
During Hurricane Sandy, just such a surge inundated the yards, causing an estimated $100 million in damage to trains and locomotives that had been stored there.
Overall, Sandy’s cost to the entire NJ Transit system, which is still not operating at 100%, is approximately $400 million.
In a story first reported by Reuters in mid-November, about two weeks after the hurricane hit, the Meadowlands Maintenance Complex was described as sitting “in the swampy crook where the Passaic and Hackensack rivers come together.”
“Most of the avoidable damage,” Reuters said, came at this “sprawling 78-acre network of tracks and buildings in an industrial area of Kearny that is surrounded by wetlands. “
According to Reuters, the National Hurricane Center and the Federal Emergency Management Agency had issued “detailed maps” prior to Sandy’s making landfall, “all warning that both the rail hub in Hoboken and the Meadows complex in Kearny would flood.”
But instead of moving the rolling stock to higher ground, NJ Transit decided to leave hundreds of rail cars and locomotives at the two sites.
Apparently factoring into this decision was precedence: Since the 1980s, when the Meadowlands complex opened, neither it nor the Hoboken yards had ever flooded, despite numerous severe storms, authorities said. Even during Hurricane Irene, although surrounding roads were under water, the railyards reportedly escaped inundation.
Sandy, however, was in a class by itself, the most destructive hurricane to hit this area in many decades. And its storm surge was a drowning compound of wind-driven floodwaters, already swollen rivers, high tide and full moon. A “perfect storm” for watery devastation.
Testifying Dec. 10 at an Assembly Transportation Committee hearing, NJ Transit Executive Director Jim Weinstein stated: “I wish I had had the foresight and the understanding to know that a yard in the Meadowlands, in Kearny, that the western part of the yard in Hoboken, which had never flooded before, was going to flood. But I didn’t.”
“We now know under the right circumstances that they are prone to flooding,” he said.
Contacted last week by The Observer, NJ Transit spokesman John Durso Jr. referred us to a Dec. 25 article in the Bergen Record, stating he had nothing to add to comments he had made to that newspaper.
According to that story, Durso said David Gillespie, NJ Transit’s director of energy and sustainability, had read the First Environment report, but it was “characterized as ‘generic’,” containing no “specific projections for flooding for specific storms or specific storm conditions.”
“The report was to be used as a guide to issues to be studied over the long term relating to the potential effects of severe weather on NJ Transit facilities and assets across the state,” Durso told The Record.
In the long term, the next two decades, the climate change study warns of more frequent intense storms and storm surges, along with higher sea levels.
For New Jersey, and NJ Transit, the “long term” arrived Oct. 29.