New York still reeling from Sandy

New Yorkers stand in line for fuel.

NEW YORK — At 4 p.m. on October 29, as heavy winds battered the East Coast ahead of Superstorm Sandy’s landfall, the Coast Guard’s regional command centre on Staten Island lost power and its hulking backup generators hummed into action.

Commander Linda Sturgis, who oversees emergency prevention at the Port of New York, was buzzed through two thick security doors into the port’s hive-like vessel traffic centre, the maritime equivalent of an air traffic control tower. The port had been bracing for Sandy for days, and a few hours earlier, its captain had halted all commercial vessel traffic, an emergency lock down known as Condition Zulu.

Shipping delays during storms are common. What few people could foresee was how Sandy’s 16-hour assault on a major oil hub would result in the worst regional fuel supply collapse in decades, delaying disaster relief, triggering panic-buying, and raising questions about energy security in the country’s most densely populated area.

The storm’s destructive powers were bad enough – knocking out equipment and power at oil terminals and other energy infrastructure, while disrupting shipping for days because of debris in the harbour. But a series of decisions over recent years had also made the region much more vulnerable. The shuttering of regional oil refineries, decisions by companies to keep fuel low stocks because holding extra supply has become expensive or unprofitable, a recent government downsizing of emergency reserves, and the heavy reliance of fuel terminals on a vulnerable electric grid all played into the supply squeeze.

As Sandy approached, Sturgis and her staff were in a unique position to watch it hammer the harbour. On dozens of blinking monitors that track marine vessels by satellite, they verified that oil tankers, barges, container ships and recreational boats were hunkered down. Then, around 8 p.m. on Monday October 29, Sturgis’s sense of alarm began to rise with the tide.

Since the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on New York, surveillance of the 1,300 or so vessels that transit the New York Harbour each day has been beefed up. Live feeds from military cameras in secret locations allowed Sturgis to watch Sandy raise sea levels by as much as 14 feet. That, she knew, would submerge low-lying zones, with frightening implications for residents. But Sturgis, who also holds a business degree in supply chain management, recognised another threat too.

“When I saw that surge, I knew it would impact oil supplies,” she says. “The public probably doesn’t realise how critical the harbour is. It’s the epicentre of fuel distribution for the whole Northeast.” (Reuters)

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