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Tolling Points

The Heroes of Hurricane Sandy

Flickr photo by @mikepick

Tolling authorities witness everyday acts of courage and heroism whenever a crisis hits. When emergency plans are activated, agencies see front-line staff go far above and beyond to keep the public safe and restore highway operations as quickly as possible.

Those plans, and the people behind them, were put to the test when Hurricane Sandy slammed into the northeastern United States in late October. When we hosted A Forum on Super Storm Sandy: Adaptation and Resilience in Miami January 10, we heard about the human side of a weather crisis that IBTTA President Rob Horr described as “a game-changer for all of us who operate infrastructure.”

Effective hurricane response is standard operating procedure in Florida, where tolling authorities have sometimes had to deal with three or four major storms in tight sequence. But the forum’s most poignant stories came from New York and New Jersey, where Hurricane Irene in 2011 turned out to be a dry run for a much more severe crisis a year later.

“This was a life-changing event for our agency,” said one forum participant. “In the Northeast, we have blizzards and snow,” but “what we saw unfold with Sandy was something we’d never seen before in any of our careers, and maybe in two or three generations.”

In the midst of the storm, some agency staff and managers flatly refused to leave their posts, working up to 40 hours at a stretch with no food or provisions.

“I had people who knew their whole neighborhood was on fire in The Rockaways, with 60 houses burning at one time,” a participant said. Those dedicated first responders—from tolling authorities and other agencies—spent their days walking through flood water to carry out rescue operations.

After the storm hit, agencies realized their mission was to restore the greatest possible degree of normalcy, as quickly as possible. “That was our goal,” said one participant. “On Tuesday morning, how much of the road can we deliver?”

But to get that job done, they had to count on staff who knew they would likely be stranded once they reported for work. “We mobilized 1,200 employees, and 900 of them couldn't get home, so it’s a big deal,” one agency executive said.

“We’ve gone through snowstorms and you could always find a store open and food in the area,” another participant said. But during Hurricane Sandy, with the Port of New York closed due to debris, tanker traffic stopped and the city ground to a halt. “People knew that once they came in, they were going to be there forever. And yet they still came in, did what they had to do, and had the bridges open the next morning.”

A Forum on Super Storm Sandy: Adaptation and Resilience pointed to the need for greater resilience and adaptability across the tolling industry, and with severe storms on the rise, we can expect this conversation to continue. But our response will always begin and end with the front-line personnel who step up in any emergency, and Hurricane Sandy showed that we have no shortage of heroes in our midst.

Click here for an op ed on resilient transportation infrastructure and hurricane readiness by Javier Rodriguez, Executive Director of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, published January 15 in the Miami Herald.


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