Home New Jersey Transit Reuters: NJ Transit officials erroneously modeled Sandy surge

Reuters: NJ Transit officials erroneously modeled Sandy surge

by Benjamin Kabak

Even as New Jersey Transit nears its pre-Sandy service levels, stories of its storm preparation failures have continued to emerge. Despite questions concerning what NJ Transit executives knew and when, we’ve seen Gov. Christie defend his deputies in charge of the transit agency. Now, a new casts further light on mistakes New Jersey Transit made in advance of Sandy’s landfall.

The latest comes to us from Reuters where Ryan McNeill and Janet Roberts have reported that NJ Transit botched its own modeling. They report:

New Jersey Transit incorrectly used federal government software that otherwise could have warned officials against a disastrous decision to leave hundreds of millions of dollars worth of equipment in a low-lying rail yard before Superstorm Sandy struck, a Reuters examination has found. The agency based its decision, at least in part, on software provided by the National Weather Service that allows users to simulate an approaching hurricane and show areas vulnerable to flooding from storm surge, according to Sandy-related forecast documents obtained by Reuters from New Jersey Transit. Exactly how the agency used the software is unclear because the agency declined to answer any specific questions.

Reuters asked for the documents that New Jersey Transit relied upon in deciding to leave the trains at its Meadows Maintenance Complex in Kearny, New Jersey. Among the documents was a screen-shot of storm prediction software that indicated the user had the storm traveling northeast, away from the New York area, while moving at the wrong speed. As a result, the software predicted surges that were about half the levels actually forecast – errors that underestimated the threat to the Meadows complex.

New Jersey Transit takes issue with the findings. But a Reuters analysis shows that had the software been used to produce surge estimates similar to forecasts, agency leaders could have seen a different picture. The result would have pointed to potential inundation of a large portion of the rail yard, mirroring the flooding that ultimately occurred.

In a back-and-forth with Reuters, New Jersey Transit defended its actions. “NJ Transit used the most current weather forecasts and available data at that time,” spokesman John Durso said, “along with accepted analysis practices by emergency management professionals and historical experiences, to inform and guide decisions up to and through Sandy.”

Yet, despite these protests, a Reuters examination of documents made available by the agency showed that their inputs into the modeling software differed from the forecasts at the time. Additionally, New Jersey Transit did not reach out to the National Weather Service’s New York or New Jersey offices to receive updated forecasts or storm surge predictions.

Ultimately, New Jersey Transit cannot undo their costly mistakes to model the storm and protect their rolling stock, but it seems, again, that someone should be held responsible for the agency’s failures. If anything, the corporate culture seems to be one of isolationism and stubbornness, and the people who suffer the most are the riders. At a certain point, saying “Well, we tried” isn’t good enough, and we’re well past that point.

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Someone January 15, 2013 - 3:38 pm

The NJT is not the Weather Channel. They should have known better than to try to model the storm themselves.

Alex C January 15, 2013 - 3:41 pm

They didn’t really use “NJ Transit used the most current weather forecasts and available data at that time” if they thought the hurricane was going to turn away and go East. They were using the wishful thinking forecast. Of all the forecasts that were released in the week up to the storm, only one longshot had the hurricane turning East. NJ Transit essentially based their strategy on the 1-in-50 forecast chance that the yard wouldn’t be flooded. Brilliant, really.

SEAN January 15, 2013 - 4:43 pm

Sounds like that NJ Transit used comfermation bius to make a decision that proved to be fullish. Nearly every weather forcaster said the storm was going to be unpressidented, but even they underestimated just how destructive Sandy turned out to be.

PeakVT January 15, 2013 - 4:43 pm

Somebody at NJT screwed up, period. Low-lying MTA facilities are connected to the very same body of water (the Lower New York Bay), but a similar level of damage was avoided because MTA decided to move its equipment.

There needs to be some accountability for this.

Bolwerk January 15, 2013 - 6:58 pm

Cuomo is a bit of tool, but FWIW he probably did offer leadership on this matter, and Christie, whatever good he did otherwise, didn’t. That may have made a huge difference, given how glacial bureaucracies in NJ and NY alike are.

Phantom January 15, 2013 - 10:34 pm


Which is why Christie will defend NJT’s horrible performance to the end.

The buck stops with him, and this was a major, entirely preventable, failure.

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