It is often said along the East Coast that no two storms are alike, and so it was with Superstorm Sandy, which unleashed the full brunt of its fearsome wrath on the New York City area on Oct. 29, 2012.
In its wake, the winds that peaked at 140 mph and accompanying flooding accounted 148 deaths and caused $68 billion in damages. Sandy ultimately caused utility outages in 17 states, en route to becoming, at 1,100 miles in diameter, the largest Atlantic storm in history.
Obviously, even with countless hours of emergency training and preparation, these extraordinary circumstances would push any service provider to the brink. Yet despite the chaos and, at times, unanticipated obstacles, the resolve of gas and electricity provider National Grid’s workers shined brightly.
“Dealing with emergencies is what we do,” said Bill Akley, the company’s senior vice president of Gas Operations. “When the chips are down and the character of your employee base comes through like that, you beam with pride.”
That National Grid employees taking part in the emergency response worked 12-hour shifts, six- and seven- day weeks until almost Christmas was not lost on Akley either. However, he said, such dedication is “pretty indicative of our industry” when it comes to getting service restored as quickly as possible.
As with other distribution companies, Natural Grid’s emergency response started with formal protocols. When forecasts showed Superstorm Sandy to be an approaching major storm, these were quickly implemented. For starters, much of the routine work of the company was suspended to free up resources and patrols were dispatched to evaluate flooding levels.
Through the use of isolation zones, a key safety measure, National Grid shut down sections of its gas distribution systems in flood-prone areas so storm damage to infrastructure would not be amplified by leaking gas. In all, the company isolated 20 separate low-lying areas across New York City and Staten Island before the storm hit.
From a public safety standpoint, this proved to be a godsend as infrastructure was quickly torn apart by falling buildings and pulled from the ground by uprooted trees. During the first five hours of the storm, National Grid received about 1,000 emergency calls ranging from service outages to cracked mains and isolated fires.
“Most folks don’t realize the severity of the impact of flooding to infrastructure, but that’s the kind of damage it did to even underground pipelines,” Akley said.
In the case of Superstorm Sandy, especially in the Rockaway Peninsula area, and in Queens and Staten Island, this isolation strategy proved to be especially effective as sections of cast iron and low-pressure infrastructure were rendered useless, filled with sand and cracked in many places. Though some of the devastated neighborhoods are still rebuilding, when all was said and done, homes and businesses belonging to all 140,000 affected National Grid customers still able to receive gas were back online within seven days.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest lessons learned from Superstorm Sandy was that problems that linger the longest for customers tend to take place beyond the meter: flooded basements and destroyed appliances prolong service restoration well beyond the time it takes to get gas back into the mains and in service lines leading to homes and buildings.
As a gas and electricity distributor, National Grid also assigned dual roles, along with extensive training, to many of its workers as part of its emergency response protocols. To make this practical, employees are trained in many facets of emergency restoration on both the gas and electric side. Gas employees, for example, learn about downed power lines and in some instances, provided secondary overhead services.
“The way that works is a gas employee’s first role is on the gas side,” Akley said. “If we are not affected, which is the majority of the time, we release our folks to the extent we can to support electric restoration.”
Additionally, the company staged plenty of drills and practice runs prior to the Superstorm Sandy response. This included implementing a distinct command structure with formal roles that replaced the day-to-day corporate hierarchy. During an emergency situation an “incident commander” takes charge of operations. In less severe situations, this can be a local area manager – in the case of Superstorm Sandy, it was the vice president of New York gas operations. Hicksville served as the central location, or emergency headquarters, for the company on Long Island.
“It’s time-tested and a lot of utilities use the same structure,” Akley said. “It helps us to coordinate with emergency responders [fire, police and municipalities], because they follow a very similar set of protocols.”
While National Grid service areas in upstate New York, New England, Rhode Island and Massachusetts were also affected by the storm, those locations were affected less severely, allowing the company to redeploy some of those workers to assist in Long Island.
In addition to its own employees and local emergency-response workers, National Grid called on one of the largest mutual aid support efforts in the nation’s history with 1,600 workers on the job during an array of restoration activities in the New York-Long Island area alone.
Akley said 46 utility companies provided 540 workers and other assistance, some of those supplying a portion of the 40,000 service regulators that had to be replaced. In some cases, boiler and heating equipment manufacturers went on six- and seven-day production schedules to meet demand.
In all, National Grid estimated it will need to reinvest $200 million in infrastructure repairs and upgrades in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. The worst of the damage to the company’s service area occurred in Rockaway Beach and Staten Island where 27 miles of mains had to be replaced.
“We will be dealing with ongoing maintenance issues for a while,” Akley said. “We’ve finally mitigated the service impact, but we have a pretty robust multiyear plan that further increases the replacement of low-pressure cast iron in flood-prone areas.”
Clearly the need to isolate more of the system through remote operating valves will play a prominent role as safety upgrades go forward as well. During Superstorm Sandy, floodwaters rose from curb level to chest-high on emergency workers in a matter of minutes.
“You don’t want employees out on patrol subjected to that situation. What you really need to use is technology,” Akley said.
Additionally, National Grid is looking at upgrading technology to monitor tidal conditions and predict storms, as well as moving from copper lines to fiber optics to make emergency communications with mutual aid workers more dependable.
“This is the first time we pushed the buttons for this many outside resources,” said Akley. “Recordkeeping had to be done differently because some relief workers weren’t hooked up to our system.”
Of all the lessons learned from Superstorm Sandy, possibly the greatest was that a distribution company can never do too much for its communities.
In the case of National Grid, monetary assistance ranged from crediting customers for the $150 inspection costs for reconnection to establishment of the company’s $30 million Sandy Rebuild Program to assist businesses in getting back on track. Simpler measures were taken as well: more than 42,000 blankets were distributed.
Because National Grid employees were working within driving distance of their own homes, 134 of them were directly affected by Superstorm Sandy, losing homes, automobiles and in one case, her life. Anna Gesso, 62, was found dead in the basement of her Staten Island home, a drowning victim. She had been employed in both the accounting and telephone collector departments for the company in Brooklyn for 21 years. In response to its employees’ losses, National Grid set up an assistance fund of slightly more than $1 million.
“This experience re-grounds your perspective on life. My family lost power, but in the scheme of things, that’s not that bad,” Akley said. “You handle some of the day-to-day stress a little differently afterward when you see folks in far worse shape. It tugs at your heart a little bit.”
Sandy By The Numbers
270: Miles of gas main reinstate within one week
140,000: customers affected in New York City and Long Island
60,000: Meters replaced
40,000: Service regulators replaced
27 miles: Infrastructure replaced
1,600: Workers dedicated to gas restoration at peak
60,000: heating systems damaged in downstate New York
140 mph: Highest recorded wind speed:
32.5 feet: Highest recorded wave in New York Harbor
1.8 million: Calls taken at Long Island customer center
466: Miles of electrical cable used on Long Island
42,000: Blankets donated by National Grid
$30 million: Value of National Grid’s Sandy Rebuild Program
$200 million: National Grid reinvestment in gas infrastructure
Data supplied by National Grid