NJ Transit officials were briefed on the potential for record flooding as they prepared for Superstorm Sandy, but they didn't use that information to plot the storm's effect "on specific NJT facilities or locations," according to an independent report released Tuesday.
The report, by an engineering service out of Texas A&M University, did not mention the low-level manager whom Governor Christie has blamed for making the call to move hundreds of pieces of rail equipment to low-lying yards in Hoboken and Kearny. The resulting damage to 273 railcars and 83 locomotives exceeded $120 million.
The report does give the agency an out, saying the decision to move the cars was based not only on available storm information, but also on past experience and the convenience of keeping equipment close by to quickly restore service.
The report provided a general overview of NJ Transit's storm response. It did not focus on any employee's decisions.
In October Christie blamed a single person for deviating from the transit agency's storm plan. He said that employee had made the decision to leave the railcars in a flood-prone area, and the employee had been demoted for his actions.
Christie's statement conflicted with earlier remarks from top transit officials, who said weather models showed the rail yards were unlikely to flood.
A governor's spokesman declined to comment Tuesday.
Earlier this year, after NJ Transit refused to release its hurricane rail plan, The Record successfully sued to get access to the document. The plan called for moving the rail equipment to higher ground. Nowhere did it call for NJ Transit to leave trains in the Meadowlands or Kearny yards.
James Weinstein, NJ Transit's executive director, has repeatedly said the agency moved equipment to the yards because they had no history of flooding and weather models showed an 80 percent to 90 percent chance they would not flood.
However, documents obtained by The Record showed that, just months before the storm, the agency received a climate-change report that identified the two yards as flood-prone.
NJ Transit released a response along with the study, listing steps it had taken to correct mistakes. An agency representative declined to comment beyond the response.
The independent report released Tuesday laid out steps to improve response to future storms. They included:
- Finding alternative locations for shops and equipment stored in the flood-prone Meadowlands.
- Finding a permanent location for the Emergency Operations Center, which during the storm operated out of a trailer in the bus depot in Orange. Emergency managers and communications staff worked there.
- Adding emphasis on timely and effective communication with the public. During the storm, the number of communications staff members was not adequate for the size of the emergency.
- Training additional staff in emergency operations to supplement emergency management employees.
- Working with local police agencies to ensure that transit officials have access to agency facilities to make repairs.
- Working with cellphone and gasoline providers to ensure uninterrupted communication and transportation for key employees.
NJ Transit did receive praise in the report for shutting down its service prior to the storm, for effectively evacuating Atlantic City using the agency's buses, and for its employees' efforts in restoring service.
"Many employees were required to perform tasks that were far afield of their normal duties in order to make this process successful," the report said. "The NJT effort that resulted in the effective restoration of service following Hurricane Sandy is noteworthy."
NJ Transit's response said it had taken steps to correct mistakes, such as:
Contracting with a private weather service to provide flooding projections and with an engineering firm to develop storm surge maps for critical facilities; selling unused rail equipment; and training addition staff to handle communications with the press and general public.