Brooklyn Battery Tunnel manager says recovery from Sandy was "amazing, just everyone stepped up"

November 22, 2012
By Peter Samuel

2012-11-21: Marc Mende, general manager of the Brooklyn-Battery (officially now Hugh L Carey) Tunnel (BBT) says their recovery from Superstorm Sandy was amazing: "New Yorkers are a resilient people, and what they can do in a disaster is amazing. I just can't praise my own people too much, and the Coast Guard and Army Corps, and private contractors, they all just took ownership of the problems, and took them on one by one. Nobody complained. They worked ridiculous hours, 16, 18 hour days seven days a week. We had cots for them to get some rest."

Never before in its 62 year history had the BBT flooded but superstorm Sandy October 29 sent the evening tide "way over the seawalls" nearby, Mende says.

"We've got very big pumps, three sets of them. But nothing could have stopped it. We had Hudson River and East River water above the seawalls. They said it was the 'perfect storm' with three things, a tropical hurricane and a nor'easter combining and driving the water, all combined on a night with a full moon and a high high tide."

West Street which is just off short ramps down to the portal of the Tunnel was under the tidal surge sea level, and soon water was shooting down the Tunnel ramps to the Manhattan Portal at the Battery like they were the sluices of a hydroelectric dam.

They'd prepared for the storm by closing the Tunnel to traffic at 2pm on Oct 29.  Vehicles and anything portable was gathered up thrown in trucks and driven out the Brooklyn end of the tunnel and parked on high ground, some of the equipment up on the Gowanus Expressway.

Then as the storm came in in the evening everyone was ordered out of the Tunnel.

Mende says he and a colleague were the last out of the Tunnel and onto higher ground in Brooklyn in his Chevy Impala staff vehicle. When they drove through  the water was 6 or 8 inches deep, but obviously rising.

He can't give any estimate of when that was except that it was night-time: "Time is all just a blur now. We were all focussed on what we had to do. Got very little sleep and working day and night you lose track of that stuff."

Next priority was families. Of his 200 staff at the Tunnel many had families in trouble from storm damage and power outages. Transit was out. Most drove cars to work, fortunately, because so many subways weren't running. Eight lost their houses.  None died but there were friends and neighbors who were lost.

Mende says as the storm raged and floodwater rose all they could do was ensure no one got hurt and prepare for the aftermath. Con Ed has been forced to cut power, so for a while they ran their big pumps on backup diesel generators. But the pumps themselves cut out when they get submerged, and submerged they were.

The water eventually filled about two-thirds of the 9,120ft length of the Tunnel, or 6,000 feet. Everything within the shell of the tunnel for most of that length was underwater - the huge air ducts above and below and of course the whole roadway portion.

The BBT is unusual among tunnels in that it has a huge ventilation building midway along its length. Built on the edge of Governor's Island in New York Harbor it has 14 stories or flights of stairs down into the Harbor and the Tunnel near its low point. Each story is about 18 feet or so apart.

Mende says that at its highest the water was up four stories of the Governors Island Vent Building which would mean the roadway of the Tunnel was about 70 to 75 feet underwater.  

They had to bring in pumps. They had some mobile pumps and got others kept by MTA for all facilities. They got very big ones from the federal agencies (ACE, Coast Guard) and from New York contractor Restani.

The Governor's Island Vent Building was a major site for pumping operations because it allowed them to drop hoses directly into deep water. Nine pumps were deployed there. Also five pumps at the Brooklyn Portal, and one at the Manhattan end.

15 pumps total with a capacity ranging between 1,000 and 28,000 gallons/minute.  6 inch hoses were used.

The tunnel took in 43 million gallons of water, Mende says. That's just under 6 million cubic ft of water. By our rough calculation 2 tubes about 30ft diameter 9120ft long the tunnel has a total volume of some 12.7 million cubic ft or 95 million gallons so end to end it must have been about 45% full of water.

The complete pump-out took nine days. 4.8m gals/day average or 3,320 gallons/minute average. Of course they can't all be run all the time because hoses have to be moved.

But Mende says as soon as the storm had subsided and while pumping was just getting under way they went to work on jobs in the above water sections of the tunnel. HLC Engineering and facility engineer Romolo DeSantis and engineering staff did an immediate assessment.

The safety of his men was his greatest concern as general manager, but they were able to get to work to clean walls and roadways an ceilings of slime and debris. Crews in special trucks with soapy water and sprays went to work.

Scuppers, drains had to be flushed and cleaned.

Ventilation ducts were cleaned.

They had a small oil spilt to deal with that required special attention.

Mende says the engineering department "did a fantastic job."

Fittings had to be cleaned and checked out one by one. For example the Tunnel has 2322 light fixtures. Three quarters of those were taken apart, cleaned, put back together and checked out. Cameras were put back, reconnected and checked. There are scores of those.

Electrical panels and switches and cabling were checked. The tunnel has an unusual 416V electrical system with special fittings.

Message signs had to be cleaned and sometimes repaired and put back, and checked.

Two of the big permanent pumps that had been submerged had to be virtually rebuilt.

A local contractor TAP Electric had staff there too working alongside engineering staff.

"Work went on around the clock. Nobody complained. People just did what they knew had to be done and they stayed around until it was done. 16 hour days were normal, no weekends."

There's a lot of work that still needs to be done, he says. They have a temporary telephone and communications system. Lighting is not at full brightness.

They have work to do still to check out equipment apparently working but perhaps damaged.

Mende says they're all proud of what was achieved in rescuing the Tunnel from the sea's inundation and having it back into operation in less than three weeks.

"I'm maintenance. I regard it (the Tunnel) as my house. We're like family here. We're proud of our house and we want it right. I smile when I drive into it, just like I smile when I look up and see the Freedom Tower (at Ground Zero.) New Yorkers are resilient people, great people..." and this from a man from Woodbridge NJ, and a regular patron of the PANYNJ bridges!

He wants to put in good words too for his bosses VP and chief of operations James Fortunato, president MTAB&T Jim Ferrera, MTA CEO Joseph Lhoto and the Governor. None of them went in for speechmaking he says. There was no attempting to micromanage. They all just wanted to know how they could help.

BACKGROUND: The Tunnel is in twin 32 foot diameter tubes dug  in the 1940s by 'sandhogs' using the drill-and-blast and compressed air. At 9,117 feet it is America's longest vehicular underwater tunnel and the gateway to lower Manhattan.

With its own Interstate designation I-478 (though it has never accepted federal money) it goes from near the tip of Manhattan at Battery Park to the Red Hook area of Brooklyn where it connects via the Gowanus Expressway (I-278) to the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and via Staten Island and the Gowanus Bridge to mainland USA.

Following Islamist attacks at the World Trade Center (9/11 of 2001) the BBT played a vital role in evacuations and bringing in emergency services and materials. Its Manhattan Portal is just blocks away from so called Ground Zero in the Wall Street District.

Each tube has two lanes and it carried an average 45,000 vehicles/day 16.57m in 2011. Peak traffic was in 2007 at 50,000 vehicles/day, 18.14m for the year.  Traffic has never got near pre-9/11 levels. The year 2000 saw 58k veg/day average, 21.15m vehicles for the year. The highest traffic ever was in 1971 at 63k22.9m (from Stantec #s E-16)

The current toll for a trip through the BBT is $6.50 cash and $4.80 with a New York E-ZPass electronic toll transponder. Other E-ZPass account holders pay the cash toll. Each additional axle for vehicles under 7,000pds pays $2.75. 3axle vehicles over 7,000pds pay $21 cash and $14.18 NY E-ZPass rising to $35 cash, $23.63 NY E-ZPass. The BB Tunnel has a 12ft height limit which rules out many higher trucks. 14ft is the normal Interstate height limit.

Stantec the MTAB&T traffic and revenue consultant comments that BB Tunnel has a higher elasticity of demand because of competition from free East River bridges than other MTAB&T facilities. BBT's elasticity is put at -0.36 vs Verrazano -0.12, Throgs Neck -0.11 and others under -0.2.

E-ZPass usage at the BB Tunnel in 2011 was close to 86%, the highest of the MTAB&T facilities along with the Henry Hudson Bridge at the north end of Manhattan.

Revenue in 2011 was $87.9m at an average toll of $5.30.

TOLLROADSnews 2012-11-21

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