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Cuomo Discusses Storm Prep

Governor Andrew Cuomo
Office of Governor Andrew Cuomo

Governors up and down the East Coast are warning residents to prepare for drenching storms that could cause power outages and close more roads in a region already walloped by rain.

Recent downpours have forced people from their homes and closed schools, and forecasters are calling for several more inches of rain in coming days — regardless of what happens with Hurricane Joaquin, which is spinning off the coast.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center says depending on its path, Joaquin could intensify the storms' damage.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was among the officials urging residents to take precautions, saying: "Our state has seen the damage that extreme weather can cause time and time again."

Governor Cuomo: Good morning, everyone. We have a conference call. I’m joined by Jim Malatras who is the New York State Director of State Operations, Tom Prendergast from the MTA, Patrick Foye from the Port Authority, John Melville who is head of Emergency Services and Kevin Wisely, who is executive director of Emergency Services. As everybody has heard the weather reports, there’s a possible storm headed our way. Possibly significant storm depending on whose weather report you look at right now, and what projection you look it. It might veer off and be nothing, or it might have a significant impact on the state. I have learned the hard way that it is better to prepare for the worst. In the past, we were not – we didn’t take the worst-case scenario into full consideration and we paid the price. So our way now is to err on the side of caution and we’re starting to get prepared because there are things that you can do before a storm that, once the storm hits, it’s too late.

We’re going to have the Emergency Operations Centers – are now staffing up. By this evening, the Emergency Operations Centers will be operational. The MTA is making all precautions – taking all precautions: prepositioning equipment; clearing construction sites, possible hazards; pre-positioning generators, pumping equipment, et cetera. The Port Authority – basically, the same thing – the Port Authority took a tremendous beating during Hurricane Sandy and has done a significant amount of work since Hurricane Sandy to be better prepared. There is physical construction that has happened – barrier walls are now up, new equipment at the airport, provide pumping if there’s water that goes over the barriers, et cetera.

Since we don’t know if the storm is Downstate or Upstate, you have to prepare statewide and there tend to be very different needs. Upstate New York, DEC – the State’s environmental agency – is going to be deploying teams with the National Guard today to clear sites that we know have been problematic in the past, so clear conduits, clear streams that have been problematic in the past. We are also going to say all local officials, county officials, towns, villages – we will waive the DEC permitting requirement starting today for work in the streams that needs to be done because local officials believe that there is an imminent danger to property if there is a significant storm. The streams shouldn’t be altered, but debris snags, et cetera, can be removed by local officials now without waiting for a DEC permit. And that’s very important. We’re also talking to all the utility companies statewide to make sure they have tree crews, especially on Long Island with PSEG, but statewide and we’re coordinating with all of the emergency operators around the state – New York City, Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, and Upstate New York as well.

Homeowners, you know, I would take the normal precautions. We don’t know exactly when the storm would hit – they’re talking about Monday, Tuesday – but I would use the time to just buy some emergency supplies for the house and make sure if the wind is strong, there aren’t things in the yard that can blow around and cause trouble.

Again, we don’t know yet what we’re looking at exactly but whatever it is, we want to be as prepared as we can be. Not that preparation ever means there won’t be damage. We know that, but you can mitigate the damage and that’s what we are seeking to do – and be prepared and not taking anything for granted is the best step and that is what we are doing. With that, any questions for myself or my colleagues would be our pleasure.
Governor’s Director of Communications Melissa DeRosa: If you have a question, please press star-one and Kyle, our operator, will go ahead and begin to call on folks.

Operator: Your first question comes from the line of Ken Lovett from Daily News. Your line is open.

Reporter: Good morning, Governor.

Governor Cuomo: How are we doing, Ken?

Reporter: Okay. In preparing for this, is there a fear – is there any lasting damage from Sandy that could really be problematic, whether it’s with the MTA tunnels, whether it’s with, you know, things are still not up to 100 percent that could be further – cause further problems now with another storm?

Governor Cuomo: That’s a good question and I am going to ask Pat and Tom to chime in. I would say it the other way, Ken. I think we are back – everything is back to where it was prior to Sandy and in fact, most things have been improved since Sandy. We learned a lot of lessons the hard way during Sandy, right, because that was a situation we had never encountered before. We have since done significant construction repairing many of the situations that occurred. So, lifting power stations, airports putting up a barrier wall, as well as procedures that we didn’t have in place before. But let me turn it over to Tom first, and then Pat, because it is an interesting question: compared to Sandy, what kind of shape are we in?

MTA Chairman Tom Prendergast: We are in much better shape. The facilities that were severely damaged have been restored to the condition they were before the storm and in some, better. Montague Street to Tunnel has been totally rebuilt. Scores of millions of dollars rebuilt the bench wall, the trackway, cleaned out all of the drainage, and we hardened the signal relay room that was down there. We put in a sea wall along the Rockaway Branch going out across the flat to Jamaica Bay so that there is a very high likelihood that we can maintain service and so that the storm wouldn’t affect service once it was past us. We’ve got flood protection equipment and barriers up at Coney Island Yard to protect. We had three pump trains in place at the time Sandy occurred. We now have five, so in the event an under-river tube floods, we can more quickly pump those out. And we’re in a much better shape than we were heading into Sandy.

PANYNJ Executive Director Pat Foye: Governor, it’s Pat Foye. We’re ready for the storm. We’re in a substantially better position, Governor, than the one when Superstorm Sandy hit three years ago. Since then, the Port Authority spent over $2 billion on recovery mitigation resiliency. That has affected all of our operations in both states. Electro substations at PATH have been raised, at La Guardia, a large generator was installed at the pump house to ensure that if there is water on the air field, it could be pumped off quickly. That’s true. Investments have been made at JFK, the Holland Tunnel, the Lincoln Tunnel, the ports on both sides of the Hudson and the World Trade Center. A substantial amount money has been spent. We have four miles of barrier in place and about 170 electric generators that could provide emergency power, Governor, about 45 megawatts. We’re ready.

Governor Cuomo: Good. And let me just say this as a note of caution: we’ve experienced all sorts of the natural conditions that never happened before, and every one is a little different, and every one comes at you from a slightly different angle. So I think we are in better shape than we have ever been, but you never know and Mother Nature comes up with a different spin every time we’ve dealt with it. So, we’ve learned a lot of lessons, better procedures are in place, as you heard, significant construction has been done. But depending what, depending from what direction, you never know what Mother Nature is going to throw your way.

Operator: The next question comes from Matthew Schuerman from WNYC Radio.

Reporter: I have a question particularly for Mr. Prendergast to follow-up on the previous one, which is indeed, you may have repaired the damage from Sandy. What I’m wondering is how vulnerable is, since you apparently have not finished all of the resiliency projects that you want to undertake to fully protect the system. To what extent are some of these projects – I’m thinking of the Montague Tunnel, but I’m thinking there are other ones where you have actually repaired the damage but you haven’t gotten as far as to prevent flooding in the future. And in fact, if there is a huge surge or huge flooding, all of the work that you’ve put in to repairing and bringing it back to the condition before Sandy is going to be wiped out again.

Chairman Prendergast: Governor, would you like for me to respond?

Governor Cuomo: Please.

Chairman Prendergast: I would not agree with that. First of all, we made all of those necessary repairs. For those resiliency projects that have not been completed, we would do what we normally do under these situations which is to barricade and prevent flooding to occur. Even when Sandy hit, and we lost as many tunnels as we did, there were other tunnels that we kept dry and we’ve improved the methods of how we preserve those locations and prevent water from coming into the tunnel. Certainly what you stated is true in the sense that there is a long time before we get all of the tunnel resiliency work done. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to sit here and just let tunnels flood if another storm comes our way. And we’ve been handling floods for years, decades, here in New York City transit, so for the approach of the storm, we’re actually going to learn from the lessons we had for both Irene, in terms of how we shut down, and Sandy, in terms of what worked and what didn’t work. But we will always have those exposures until the resiliency projects are completed. And you should know we can’t take all of the tunnels out of service at one time and still maintain service for the City of New York, with the record ridership we’re seeing – six million people a day.

Reporter: Can I just follow up on that and ask specifically about the Montague Tunnel since you mentioned that? What resiliency measures have you taken there to make sure that the repair work will be protected under a future storm?

Chairman Prendergast: Well, the thing that was damaged the most was, there is a signal relay house that is down at trackside and we have literally put in submarine doors and we have put in the ability to keep it water tight, so water doesn't enter and do the significant damage to the signal relays that occurred. In terms of the rebuilding of the bench wall and the structures and putting in the submarine cable – cable that, in the event that the tunnel we to flood, it would be in a much greater likelihood of not doing any damage to that cable. And we have other infrastructure improvements in the way of keeping flooding from coming into that tunnel.

Reporter: Thank you, sir.

Governor Cuomo: Let me just add this to my colleagues’ comments. You prepare the best you can, right? And we have taken extraordinary measures, especially post-Sandy. However, depending on what Mother Nature comes up with, I don't know that you can ever say, "At this point, whatever happens, we are prepared." Okay. We have put up a four foot barrier wall. Great, unless the sea rises five feet, right? I was in Buffalo a couple months back and there was, they were prepared for five feet of snow and the equipment was ready to handle up to five feet of snow and five feet of snow hadn't happened in X years. Yeah, well then we had seven feet of snow. So, the five feet of snow preparation goes right out the window. So, Sandy was a historic storm, and we did learn from that and we did prepare for that, but again I've learned the hard way never to say that we are prepared for whatever comes our way, because you cannot be prepared for whatever comes your way. Next question.

Operator: Your next question comes from Freeman Klopott from Bloomberg News. Your line is open.

Question: Hi Governor, thanks for taking the time to answer our questions. Just wondering, part of the preparations with the MTA at this point, does that include preparing to close down the system?

Governor Cuomo: Thomas.

Chairman Prendergast: The plans that have been established and were first implemented in Irene which was the first time we had an orderly shutdown of the system, followed up by Sandy. That is plan that was generated by New York City with full input from us. In a full Hurricane, there are plans, and in following that plan, there are requirements to protect the equipment, lay it up in locations where it will not be susceptible to wind damage or flooding as best as possible, and make sure that the system goes through an orderly shutdown, such that when sustained wind speeds reach 39 miles per hour we don't have equipment out there. We also are the primary responsibility party for if the city were to order an evacuation from low lying areas, we assist in that with our busses and our transit vehicles. So whenever there's an onset on the horizon of a potential hurricane, we put ourselves in a position to be ready to implement the plan as specified, that agreed-to plan. So that's the general answer to your question. But you don't get to that point until, like today, it's way too far early in terms of what the forecasters are predicting the storm, where it will hit and what its intensity will be.

Governor Cuomo: Freeman, you know, we've gone through this a few times. Do you close the road, do you close the bridge, do you close the MTA? These are very difficult calls. You make them only when you have to make them and you make them with the best information that you have. Then my predilection is to err on the side of caution, because you get second-guessed no matter what you do. We have left roads open and we have had people stranded on roadways in very dangerous conditions. We close roadways, and then you hurt commerce and you hurt motorists who are trying to get somewhere. Closing the MTA is obviously a major decision. If you don't close it and you wind up with a hurricane, you can damage equipment and it could take days to get the system back up and running. One of the reasons you close it is to protect the equipment, so post-storm you get up to speed, pardon the pun, quickly. But closing the MTA has a dramatic effect on the economy of the whole metropolitan region. But we're nowhere near that. This is all preparation, what we call the "pre-deployment" phase. 3,000 National Guard have been notified that they could be deployed, for example. They have not been deployed, but they could be. That's the stage we are in now.

Reporter: Okay, thank you very much.

Operator: Your next question comes from the line of Nick Reisman from Time Warner Cable News. Your line is open.

Reporter: Hi Governor, I was just wondering what kinds of precaution and monitoring would be taking place at various dams. Upstate, obviously during Irene, you had the issue with the Gilboa Dam. I know that's been rebuilt, but what sort of monitoring will be taking place at those structures?

Governor Cuomo: That is ongoing right now. Again, we've had more experience in this area than I wish I had. But between the Power Authority and other State agencies, we have people prepositioned at critical infrastructure locations and we're going through that right now, Nick.

Also the point Nick about waiving the DEC regulations for local officials to do work in the streams, often what happens is the flooding in Upstate communities comes because the streams back up or there is a blockage at a conduit or at a different pipe and that especially happens when the stream was filled with debris. So today, tomorrow, the next day, you don’t need a permit from the DEC, if you can notify them that would be great but getting the streams and the conduits cleared now is very important.

Reporter: Thank you.

Operator: Your next question comes from the line of Marc Santora from The New York Times. Your line is open.

Reporter: Yeah hi, thanks, I believe you have already answered my question about where we are today versus where we were when Sandy struck but I think you guys already answered that, so thank you.

Operator: Your next question comes from the line of Casey Seiler from Albany Times Union. Your line is open.

Reporter: Hey Governor, thanks. You have mentioned that – you mentioned that some of the areas that gave trouble in the past, Nick asked about the Gilboa Dam, could you or anybody sort of specify what some of those areas are? You know Keene Valley, around Schoharie County, that kind of thing. Anywhere else that are kind of that list?

Governor Cuomo: You know Casey, here is the tough part of it: we have had problems everywhere, right? It depends on what angle Mother Nature comes at you and with what. Flooding, we know the areas that are prone to flooding, right? We have historical data on that. Wind is a different problem; hail is a different problem, but then Downstate is a totally different situation because it is more of a facilities problem. Whereas in Upstate you have more of a natural landscape issue. It is the low lying areas, it is the floods – the streams that tend to flood, obviously in the Capital District Region, you have Schoharie, et cetera. But the areas that tend to flood, tend to flood repeatedly. The critical infrastructure we watch and then Downstate it is a facilities question. But John Melville, Kevin Wisely, do you have – in terms of specific geographic areas, let’s presume flooding – where are we focused and concentrated?

Office of Emergency Management Director Kevin Wisely: Governor this is Kevin Wisely. So as we typically with tropical storms, and as you articulated it all depends on the storm and what happens but certainly, areas of the Southern Tier and the Broome County area – areas and parts of the Mid-Hudson Valley and Capital District Region, are areas that we are always concerned when it comes to a large amount of rain. We have, as weather systems have already passed through the state, so we have had some soaking rains these last few days. It is just the potentials and watching the track is so important to determine how much more rain we get. But as the Governor articulated, it all depends on where that trajectory goes of the system. But there are also times where we have flooding in areas even in the Capital District Region where we had flooding in Colonie yesterday where it is not an unusual occurrence but there was so much soaking rain in that one concentrated area that it caused some problems so that is why remain vigilant in watching the weather systems.

Governor Cuomo: Thanks Kevin. One problem we don’t have any more Casey is, what happened in the past was we had to wait to see where the storm hit and then deploy the resources to that part of the state. So you could be waiting 24 hours before and not knowing where the storm was going to hit and then, depending upon the part of the state that was hit, all the resources had to be deployed. Irene was supposed to hit in New York City so we sent all the resources to New York City. It didn’t hit New York City, it barely drizzled in New York City, but there was a tremendous storm in the Mid-Hudson and north but all of the equipment was in the city. We are much better prepared now then we were then. We now have regional stockpiles all throughout the state, we have people prepositioned all across the state and we have equipment everywhere in the state to deal with a situation should it arise. So again, we learned the hard way, many of these lessons. I am sure there are more lessons to be learned but I don’t want to leave anyone on the phone with the suggestion that post-Sandy we are ready for anything. You cannot be ready for anything. And I can’t tell you how many briefings I have been in where the apparatus was fairly confident that they could handle the situation but the situation was more than we had anticipated so we are doing the best we can. We are ahead of it but I am always, I have my heart somewhat in my mouth during these situations.

Reporter: Thank You.

Governor Cuomo: Okay.

Operator: The last question comes from one of Andrew Tangel from Wall Street Journal.

Reporter: Hi Governor, Andrew Tangel from the Wall Street Journal, just a quick follow up for Tom Prendergast on some of the preparations the MTA has made. I don’t know if you could tell us just probably what kind of company equipment, blocking gates, stairwell, and vent, and manhole covers, et cetera the MTA has purchased since Sandy, and how much more remains to be acquired by the MTA and overall, how many more billions of dollars of work and years ahead until the MTA is both finished with repairing the Sandy damage and also for a fight against the category 2 hurricane.

Tom Prendergast: Well as the Governor said, I mean, you know, we’ve have an ongoing effort much like Pat Foye and the Port Authority, in terms of aggressively implementing the resiliency project which hardened the system against weather events like this. And that’s a long process, not only in terms of our ability to put the projects together, award contracts and get them done, but the sequence in which we have to do that because we can’t shut down more than one or two, one and half under-river tubes at a time, so that we’re a ways away from having a full completion of that multi-billion dollar effort with those Sandy funds. We have done Montague, we have done the seawall going out across the Jamaica Bay Flats, and we’ve hardened the system in a number of other locations as well, but that work will be ongoing for years before it will be totally completed. And the fact that we have been able to equip two additional pump trains—because tunnels do flood and we’ve got flood protection out of Coney Island Yard which is probably the largest storage yard in North America for rapid transit equipment—our examples of work are ongoing. It will be a while, Andrew, before it’s all done. But in the meantime, we’re taking the necessary steps we always do to put up temporary enclosures and hardening the system where water can enter the system.

Governor Cuomo: I think that was the last question. Let me just say this in closing: First, I want to thank participants on the phone call, both my colleagues and the reporters who called in. I think the bottom line is although you can’t be prepared for everything, there is no doubt that we are in a much, much better position than we’ve ever been before. As I noted previously, I’ve had many more emergencies, natural emergencies during my tenure than any other governor. We’ve learned from each one. Sandy obviously, Downstate, the most devastating. Irene, Upstate, was very, very devastating and some of the people Downstate didn’t appreciate it as much because they didn’t live through it. But in terms of training procedures, equipment, hardening of systems, there’s no comparisons to where we were before. There was a case of first impression before. So the entire system, whether you’re talking about the MTA or the Port Authority or DOT facilities, they are all much, much better prepared than they’ve ever been. I just don’t want to get arrogant or cocky because I’ve been knocked to the ground a couple of times by Mother Nature, but there’s no doubt that were in a much, much better position than we’ve ever been in before. We will continue updating you as we learn more. Otherwise, we’re starting early, but that’s the only way to make sure you’re doing everything possible. Thank you all very much for taking the time to participate. Goodbye, have a good day.

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