In anticipation of the destruction the winds of Hurricane Sandy would bring to the East Coast in late October, electrical contracting firms around the country hired additional hands and dispatched teams to prepare to work alongside electric utility workers in order to bring power back to the area. Parker City, Ind.-based Townsend Corp. sent 510 employees in 194 crews from branch offices in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Louisiana, the Carolinas, and Georgia to support line clearance and construction work. John Pequet, a member of electrical workers’ union Local 17 in Southfield, Mich., said that when he dispatched his crew on October 28, he was told to “keep going until you get to the ocean.”

In addition, despite having to manage their own disaster preparedness, several New York-based firms pitched in with the effort (Disaster Planning Works for New York Electrical Firm). For example, Victor, N.Y.-based O’Connell Electric Co. dispatched 116 workers and 68 pieces of equipment and vehicles to help in Long Island and Brewster, N.Y. According to CEO Victor E. Salerno, the firm’s linemen first focused on getting customers back online, which, because of the extent of the damage, took much time and resources.

E-J Electric Installation Co., Long Island, N.Y., began mobilizing union electrical workers, most coming from IBEW Local 3 and 42, and equipment as the threat of Sandy increased. In all, it hired an additional 200 workers. With divisions that include transmission and distribution (T&D) and electrical construction, the firm was in a unique position to offer its services to the New York City area. The firm deployed around 40 linemen to help with power restoration efforts in Long Island, along with First Call, its emergency response team. Its field staff — from project management to engineering — worked around the clock, even through the weekends.

Fortunately, the firm’s headquarters were untouched by the rising waters, and the building never lost power. “Our entire neighborhood was flooded, literally right up to 10 feet from our steps,” says Anthony E. Mann, president and CEO, E-J Electric Installation Co., Long Island City, N.Y. “We were lucky, and that enabled us to respond very quickly.”

Still, the company wasn’t completely unaffected. Its warehouse, located two blocks from headquarters, had 10 inches of water in it. Furthermore, many of the company’s employees lost their homes. “A lot of our employees had challenges,” says Mann.

Some had to take time off to relocate or rebuild. Still, the firm responded to the emergency situation. “We’ve had situations where we needed up to 25 electricians in the facility for an emergency, and they’ve come and worked through the night,” says Mann. “A lot of them have their own problems, but were working around the clock to help other people. It was amazing to see how everybody stepped up with the whole organization working 24/7.”

Up and running

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, ongoing construction projects were postponed in order to respond to emergency situations. “The clients had to be back up and running,” says Mann. “Critical care, housing, even commercial facilities, had to have power restored.”

For instance, E-J Electric responded to an emergency call by New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) to survey and repair 29 public housing buildings on Coney Island. All locations experienced some type of damage due to flooding from Hurricane Sandy, including some of the switchgear rooms being submerged by ocean water that left the buildings without power. Through a coordinated effort with multidisciplined construction management, engineering, and architecture firms, the LiRo Group and HAKS, as well as NYCHA, Army Corp of Engineers, and E-J Electric, generators were located to get the buildings on temporary power and re-energize the resident apartments, boilers, elevators, trash compactors, and other life safety systems.

“These people couldn’t afford to leave or go to a hotel,” says Mann. “They didn’t have any place to go. So we needed to get the power back up because these people were really dependent on living there.”

In the time before the storm, E-J Electric had been working for Turner Construction to build a new energy building at NYU Langone Medical Center, a private hospital. Turner Construction was able to use that relationship to quickly hire E-J Electric for the post-storm recovery. Under the design/build process, E-J Electric brought power up in three weeks, with the cooperation of a national electrical manufacturer, which produced switchgear in six days instead of the normal 12- to 18-week turnaround time.

At the entertainment and sports facility Chelsea Piers, the entire first floor, which contained the electrical infrastructure, was under water. E-J Electric Installation Co. crews were able to get the place opened in three weeks — in time to be open for its busy holiday season.

In order to do that, the firm cleaned and put back in service two 4,000A service switchboards, while simultaneously evaluating and ordering replacement electrical equipment for four major electrical distribution rooms throughout the complex. Three of these rooms were completely rebuilt, including the complete relocation of one electric room to the second floor to limit the facility’s exposure in the event of another flood event in the future.

In a second location, a replacement 500kVA transformer was installed on a 16-foot-high steel platform, and the remaining equipment was raised by 12 inches. In addition, E-J Electric helped determine a location for a replacement main service switchgear room on the second floor that is currently in design by the consulting engineers. Work will commence once plans are completed.

“Short-term, there was a lot of activity,” says Mann. “But most of the work finished rather quickly. New construction is ongoing again. It was a short-term postponement, and everybody’s back to the normal processes.”
Additionally, such as in the next phase for Wall Street commercial buildings, there are opportunities for further projects in the future to meet revised building codes. “There will be some long-term infrastructure work that comes out of it,” continues Mann. “Also, the people building new buildings are already making changes to what they’re doing. They’re moving their switchgear upstairs. They’re putting in retaining walls to keep water out.”

Toward resilience

Flooding in lower levels where mechanical and electrical infrastructure were located destroyed fuel pumps, transfer switches, and other systems. “The water ran right through the parking lots and took out the switchgear in the basements,” says Mann, who explains that many commercial buildings in the area have moved their electrical and mechanical infrastructure to an upper floor. “They’re looking at relocating their infrastructure to be ready if there’s another big storm. That’s a second phase. The upper floors were all fine. It wasn’t wind, and there was very little rain. It was all water damage from flooding.”

Moreover, some owners are considering more long-term changes. According to Mann, the market for commercial buildings will drive the changes. Power independence has now become a necessary quality for attracting tenants. Co-generation will power buildings independently in case of emergency. “Class A buildings are going to take measures that their tenants are going to want them to take,” says Mann. “If you’re a tenant in a Class A building, you’re going to want to make sure your critical systems are above where any water would come. So that will naturally happen for those types of buildings.”

Nonetheless, New York intends to make some of these changes official. On Nov. 15, 2012, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo convened the NYS 2100 Commission in response to the recent severe weather events like Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Irene, and Tropical Storm Lee. The commission was asked to recommend actions to be taken to prepare New York to more effectively respond to, and bounce back from, future storms and other disasters. On January 11, the Commission issued its first report, “Building Resilience in New York.”

The recommendations are categorized by transportation, energy, land use, insurance, and infrastructure finance.  The report also highlights nine major cross-cutting recommendations that are relevant to multiple sectors and systems: protect, upgrade, and strengthen existing systems; rebuild smarter; ensure replacement with better options and alternatives; encourage the use of green and natural infrastructure; create shared equipment and resource reserves; promote integrated planning and develop criteria for integrated decision-making for capital investments; enhance institutional coordination; improve data, mapping, visualization, and communication systems; create new incentive programs to encourage resilient behaviors and reduce vulnerabilities; and expand education, job training, and workforce development opportunities.

“We’re looking at what the city needs to do for buildings,” says Mann, who was appointed co-chair of the electrical and IT working group on the New York City Building Resiliency Task Force, convened by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.  “We’re right in the middle and hope to conclude by May, coming out with new regulations on what needs to be done to prevent what happened with Sandy. Each building type is different, each location is different, and it’s something that the city is looking at closely.”

Economic impact

Estimates put the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy at $50 billion. On January 29, President Obama signed into law the Hurricane Sandy Supplemental bill, which appropriates roughly $50.5 billion to various agencies for Hurricane Sandy relief and recovery efforts. The bill provides funding to the Federal Transit Administration for transportation-related projects, the Army Corps of Engineers for flood control and construction projects, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development for community development programs. In addition, the bill provides more than $11 billion to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to replenish and expand the Disaster Relief Fund. Combined with the $9.7 billion in aid President Obama signed into law January 6, federal aid for recovery from Hurricane Sandy now totals $60.4 billion.

This funding has led some observers to believe the recovery work from the storm’s damage will create a surge in construction spending. But according to the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), the overall impact is likely to be negative. The funding to replace these structures in many cases will be taken from other construction budgets, says the AGC. Meanwhile, businesses that had planned to build, or to occupy new space that developers put up, will defer or cancel those projects. State and local governments will experience lower income, sales, and property tax receipts, forcing further budget cuts.

Stephen Sandherr, CEO for the construction trade association, urged Congress and the administration to make infrastructure investment a top priority in 2013. “Congress and the president have provided some tax certainty that provides a foundation for economic growth,” Sandherr said. “But their jobs are far from completed. It is vital that the states devastated by Hurricane Sandy receive funding immediately for recovery work. In addition, lawmakers should not target construction spending for further cuts when they turn to spending decisions in the next two months.”   

SIDEBAR: Disaster Planning Works for New York Electrical Firm

MTA/NYCT, the largest U.S. public-transit service, suffered $5 billion in damage and lost revenue as a result of Hurricane Sandy.

N.J. Transit, the United States’ second largest transit system, sustained $400 million in damage. RailWorks, North America’s leading provider of track and transit and systems construction and maintenance services, weathered Hurricane Sandy with minimal disruption due to contingency plans in place along with the extraordinary response by its employees, and was able to help get New York’s transportation services running again. This is the timeline of the company’s proactive action and responses:

Three days before Sandy made landfall, RailWorks’ Information Technology (IT) Department, led by Chief Information Officer Bob Cummings, verified that contingency plans developed more than a year ago were in place. The department began the first of 10 consecutive daily morning and evening calls to monitor the storm, its impact on critical business functions, and related IT support activities. Field and project offices in Sewell, N.J.; Worcester, Mass.; and throughout the Greater New York area, secured equipment in their yards, repositioned equipment and materials out of low-lying areas, and confirmed access to generators.

On October 27, Salvatore DeMatteo, general superintendent for RailWorks subsidiary L.K. Comstock, monitored flood zones and began sending alerts to project managers and general foremen on the status of project operations over the next five days.

On October 28 — a Sunday — Payroll Manager Fabi Mayor, Finance Manager/Payroll Controller Tom Lealand, and Controller Judy DelGizzo decided to begin running payroll early using available data. Mayor contacted Assistant Payroll Manager Linda Horan and Payroll Associates Kathy Calvente, Michelle King, Louanne Wilson, and Susana Wong, who immediately started processing payroll from their homes.

On October 29, the corporate and Farmingdale offices were without power and Internet. Services were out or intermittent over the next few days. MTA/NYCT construction managers advised N.Y. Transit that all project sites were shut down. N.Y. Transit leadership initiated ongoing communications with field personnel to coordinate Farmingdale office and project startup activities. The IT department maintained contact with departments throughout the week to support essential activities and to help coordinate getting employees set up to work from home. Telecommunications Manager John Barry and Director of Infrastructure Services Bob Hickey monitored and addressed infrastructure, network, and power problems and worked with the IT team to resolve them throughout the week.

Payroll employees continued processing payroll from their homes. Power outages began hitting one payroll employee after another throughout the afternoon. They used landlines and cell phones to notify each other when the power went out or was restored. Using a tag-team approach, they kept work progressing wherever they could find power. This effort continued the next day. Payroll Operations Analyst Fred Omar charged his mobile phone in his car so he could respond to calls from the field about the automated time-collection system.

On October 30, winds, rains, and flooding pounded New Jersey and New York throughout the night and through three cycles of tides, crippling transportation networks, downing overhead power lines, and flooding eight NYCT subway tunnels, as well as the Hugh L. Carey and the Queens Midtown tunnels. The Metro-North Railroad lost power in sections, and the Long Island Rail Road sustained flooding. As the day progressed, Sandy weakened as it moved inland over Pennsylvania.

N.Y. Transit personnel resumed limited work at some project sites. With all mass transit still shut down in New York, Staff Accountant Kevin Evangelista caught a ride from his apartment in Queens into the Manhattan office so he could get his computer. He returned home where he used his Wi-Fi to transmit the file of electronic ACH payments to vendors. He continued this effort throughout the week.

Corporate Cash Manager Trisha O’Donohue maintained banking throughout the storm by working off available hot spots in Westchester County, N.Y.

On October 31, the payroll department met at the Farmingdale, N.Y., office. They traveled with John Barry to an emergency back-up office on Long Island, where the IT and payroll departments had power and Internet connections to perform their work.

Work resumed at all N.Y. Transit project sites, including CBTC Flushing and the No. 7 Line Extension, which were flooded and had the most damage. The CBTC Flushing project office in Long Island City ran with a back-up generator for the next two weeks.

On November 1, the IT and payroll departments resumed operations in the Farmingdale office, even though most employees’ homes were without power and some were taking on water.

On November 2, Accounts Payable Manager Melissa Quinones used Wi-Fi at her home to transmit the file for check runs.

During the week of November 5, N.Y. Transit began restoration services for NYCT at South Ferry, to clean up and restore the station, and at Coney Island Yard, to overhaul water-damaged switch and stop machines. Work continued into December.